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Authors: Lynne Barron

Pretty Poison

BOOK: Pretty Poison
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Pretty Poison

 

by

 

Lynne Barron

Also by Lynne Barron

 

Portrait of Passion, Idyllwild 1

 

Widow’s Wicked Wish, Idyllwild 2

 

Unraveling the Earl, Idyllwild 3

Chapter One

 

Emerald Isle Plantation

 

Calvert County, Maryland

 

January, 1826

 

“You’ve less sense than a flea on Samson’s back!” Charles Calvert’s booming voice woke the old hound dog sleeping next to the hearth in the study. Samson lifted one droopy golden eye to peer out at Emily and her father before settling once more into sleep.

“Da,” Emily began, smiling up at her father, determined to maneuver him into a cheerier frame of mind by playing the dutiful, doting daughter.

“Don’t you
Da
me, Emily Ann,” he shouted. “And none of your smiles and batting eyelashes, either. Hell and damnation, girlie.”

“What did I do that was so terrible?” she asked with a huff as she settled back on the long settee and crossed her arms over her chest. “I hadn’t planned to leave Emerald Isle but that wily buck took me on a merry chase clear onto Mr. Gimble’s land.”

“And you just had to go chasing after him in your brother’s britches?”

“I couldn’t very well hunt that buck in a gown, not in those woods, with branches and dead wood tangling in my skirts. An eight point, he was. We would have dined on Pearl’s venison stew tonight if Mrs. Gimble and her nosy daughters hadn’t come upon me just as I took aim.”

“But those three busy-bodies did come upon you and they’ve already spread the tale far and wide.” Charles turned away to pace before the hearth, the old hound cracking one eye open to watch his movements. “Land sakes, Em, you might have weathered this new brouhaha if it didn’t come right on top of the other.”

“Now, Da, it was only a dip in the pond,” Emily protested. “The Polar Plunge the men at Chesterton College call it.”

“You are not a man and you’ve no business swimming about in your unmentionables in the dead of winter with two gentlemen, only one of which is related to you!”

“Tate Danson is as like a brother to me as Nate,” Emily argued.

“He is no more your brother than are the two gentlemen who witnessed your plunge,” Charles bellowed, his green eyes bulging.

“That was unfortunate,” she admitted, shaking her head at the memory of breaking the surface of the cold water to find the two men standing on the wooden dock looking at her as if she were a mermaid rising from the depths of the pond.

“Unfortunate? Hell, it was a damn disaster,” her father roared. “And now you’ve gone and made things worse with this latest bit of mischief. Do you have any idea at all what you have done?”

Emily didn’t. Not really. Not yet. It wasn’t until later that evening when her fiancé, Peter Marshall, came to call that the truth of her folly dawned on her. He didn’t come to call on

Emily. No, Peter barely glanced at her as he followed her father down the hall and into the study.

Emily sat on the bottom step of the huge oak staircase to wait for Peter to reappear. She didn’t have long to wait

“Peter,” Emily called out when it seemed he would walk right past her without acknowledging her in the least. Jumping to her feet, she placed her hand on his arm, felt the stiffening of his muscles beneath her fingers.

“Miss Calvert,” Peter greeted with barely a nod.

Emily looked up into his handsome face, startled to see a severe frown pulling at his normally smiling lips and a distant look in his gray eyes.

“Miss Calvert?” Emily repeated softly. “We have been Emily and Peter to each other these many months.”

Peter cleared his throat and shifted his arm just enough so that Emily’s hand dropped away. He took a step back, turned and walked out the door.

Sinking back onto the stairs, her rustling skirts loud in the silent foyer, she stared at the closed door long after Peter had disappeared through it.

 

The following morning, a jilted Emily Calvert and her family took their place in the front pew of St. John’s Church in Buckstown, Maryland. They were greeted with whispers behind gloved hands and disdainful stares.

“How the mighty have fallen.” Charity Gimble’s words carried to Emily just as she’d intended.

“Not surprising,” Hope Gimble replied. “Blood will tell after all.”

At those words, Emily looked past her brother Nate’s broad shoulders to Patsy and Charlie, her father’s children by his mistress, both with their golden heads bent in prayer. Neither appeared to have heard and if they had, would they understand? She looked up to see her father looking back at her with a ferocious scowl on his weather-beaten, freckled face.

Emily saw beyond his fury to the sorrow in his eyes, the regret he rarely allowed himself to feel, much less show.

Emily thought about Hope Gimble’s words. She knew that for all that her family was the most prosperous, outwardly revered family in Buckstown and all of Calvert County, the same people who treated them with deference and esteem were secretly waiting for them fall into disgrace. Those people had been waiting a long time.

Heat pricked Emily’s eyes and she blinked furiously. She would not cry before these sanctimonious, judgmental hypocrites.

Rising from the hard wooden pew when the service ended, she followed her family down the long aisle, past the stares and whispers and snickers. She held her head high and raked a scathing glance over the congregation, meeting eyes that quickly shifted away.

“This too shall pass,” she whispered as she stepped into the muted light of a cold January afternoon.

 

And pass it did. It passed from bad to worse.

“Your Aunt Margaret has written to me,” Charles Calvert announced one evening in early February as the family, minus Nate who had returned to school, was finishing dinner.

“You’ve told her you will be journeying to England to tour the railways?” Emily asked without much interest. Why her father wanted to leave Emerald Isle to go traipsing across some cold, dismal island was beyond her.

“Who is Aunt Margaret?” Patsy asked.

“Da’s sister,” Emily replied. “She lives in England.”

“Why haven’t we ever met her?” Charlie asked around a mouthful of bread pudding.

“Please don’t speak with your mouth full,” Emily gently admonished her brother.

“It’s disgusting,” Patsy added. “No one wants to see your half-chewed food.”

Charlie stuck his tongue out at his sister.

“Charles Calvert!” their father roared from the head of the table. He shot one hot look at his son before turning his angry gaze on Emily. “Have you no control over these heathens?”

“They are not heathens,” Emily calmly replied to her father’s outburst. In the weeks since Peter had broken their betrothal, her father had rarely spoken to her and when he did it was to chastise her for one thing or another. “They are children without the benefit of mother, tutor, or governess.”

Her father only stared at her in silence for long seconds before pushing back his chair and rising to his feet. “Emily, girl of mine, I’ll see you in my study in five minutes.”

Emily felt a shiver run down her spine at the soft words. A blustering Da was a happy Da, or at the very least one whose temper was short lived. A soft-spoken Da was a warning to beware.

“Have a spot of whiskey,” Charles invited when Emily entered his study some twenty minutes later. But really, a lady had only so many ways to make her displeasure known and tardiness was one of them.

Emily poured a small measure of Irish whiskey into a crystal tumbler and took her seat before her father’s massive desk. She watched him across the mahogany space as she sipped daintily. She’d been sipping whiskey in the study with her father for years as they went over the household accounts and discussed the horse farm, now more Emily’s domain than his.

“You’re right you know,” her father said quietly as he looked at her with a steady gaze.

“I’m right about what, Da?” she asked as warning bells clanged in her brain.

“I’ve been remiss in the raising of your brother and sister,” he replied, his voice still eerily soft.

“Oh, Da,” Emily said with a sigh.

“Now, let me finish, Em.” Her father held up one beefy hand to halt her words before closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. “It’s not right you having the responsibility of bringing up Charlie and Patsy.”

“I don’t mind, really Da,” Emily assured him.

“I know you don’t, Em. I know you love them. They know you love them. But it’s past time for a change. Charlie will be going off to school before long and he’s not near ready. And Patsy, well you’ve done real fine with her but she needs a governess, needs to be taught to be a proper lady.”

“Are you saying I can’t teach Patsy to be a lady?” Emily demanded.

“Girl, how can you teach her what you don’t know?” Charles shot back.

“I know how to be a lady.”

“Then why the hell aren’t you?” he bellowed and Emily’s heart rate slowed, her fists unclenched and she sagged back into her chair. She’d been truly worried there, what with Da’s soft words. Now things were getting back to normal.

“Honest to God, Emily Ann,” he hollered. “You spent years turning away every suitor who came courting until they just stopped coming. Then, for some reason known only to you and the good Lord, you set your sights on Peter Marshall. And I’ll be damned if you didn’t bring him up to scratch, only to ruin it with your wild ways!”

“Da, I know I’ve embarrassed you,” Emily began carefully.

“Embarrassed me?” her father repeated. “Hell, girlie, I don’t give two damns what a bunch of sniveling busybodies and their menfolk think! You ruined your last chance to marry!”

“Peter was not my last chance to marry.” Even as she spoke the words, she suspected her father was right. Peter likely had been her last chance, her only chance. The only man she’d ever met who she thought might have been able to make her happy. The only man she had trusted to be the one thing she wanted in a husband.

“Well, girlie, it seems you may be right in this as well,” her father said with a huff as he hoisted his bulky frame from his chair.

Emily only looked at him. Surely Da wouldn’t admit to her being right twice in one night. It had to be a trick.

“My sister Margaret has a young gentleman in mind for you.” The words were followed by a hefty pat on her shoulder as her father walked past her to the sideboard.

“What? Who? Where? In England?” Emily’s voice rose in panic with each question. “Da, you can’t mean to marry me off to a man I’ve never even met! You can’t mean to send me to England!”

“Now, Emily, mind your tone,” he barked from behind her.

Emily rose from her chair to face her father. They stared at one another, unblinking green eyes riveted upon unblinking green eyes. Neither spoke, the only sound in the room the crackling of the fire in the hearth and the snoring of Samson before it.

“Da?” she whispered, tears rushing to her eyes.

“Em, my girl,” he responded and in his steady gaze Emily saw his sorrow, his regret, her doom.

“I’ll be good, Da.” Emily approached him, her hand out to him in supplication, tears hovering on her lashes. “I promise. No more wearing breaches or swimming in the pond in my shift. No more riding astride, no more dressing like a boy and sneaking into the tavern, no more kissing Patrick Colby behind the church. I swear it.”

“You kissed young Colby behind the church?” her father bellowed.

“Only once or twice. Da, please. I promise I’ll be good.” She blinked until tears began to slowly trickle down her cheeks.

“Emily,” her father opened his arms and she ran into them. “Now, don’t carry on so, girlie, it’ll be all right.”

Emily sniffed against his barrel chest and allowed a small watery smile. Da never could resist her tears.

“Margaret says in her letter that he’s a fine young gentleman, the son of a Viscount,” her father said as he awkwardly patted her back.

“Da, you can’t be serious. You won’t really send me away. I’ve learned my lesson. Now you can stop pretending.”

 

Only Charles Calvert was not pretending and on a blistering day in early March Emily found herself onboard the
Silent Night
, standing beside her father, watching as the city of Baltimore, the shores of United States of America receded into the fog swirling above the cold sea.

 

BOOK: Pretty Poison
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