Not Your Average Beauty
Yorkshire, October 1790
There was blood on his hands.
Who—or what—it belonged to, he didn’t know. His temples pounded as he attempted to drag himself up onto his bed. He lifted a shaking hand, sticky and stinking of the drying blood, to his brow, but the act brought the putrid smell too close to his nose. Already weakened, his stomach lurched in protest, and he heaved violently onto the floor.
Glorious. Just bloody glorious.
Was it not but a fortnight ago he’d subjected himself to another session of incomprehensible incantations and bitter potions by a so-called magician? More money and time wasted. And, perhaps, one more thread of hope unraveled in his never ending quest to be free of the Beast. Priests and scholars, alchemists and magicians from every corner of Europe and even beyond had been consulted. No distance had been too far, nor any price demanded too high. For the cost of this horror—waking up in a soup of filth and blood, causing terror among the people it was his duty to protect—was higher still.
The jangle of keys in the lock of his bedchamber door announced help was on its way. In the next instant his butler Hanley, who had served his father before him, entered the room, bringing relief along with a heavy dose of humiliation. He was vaguely aware of Hanley’s calm and measured voice directing the small parade of house staff that dared to remain in his employ. They took care of the mess as if cleaning up after a dinner party. As he was hauled up onto his bed and a warm cloth brought to his face, he silently made a note to talk to his steward about giving Hanley a raise in his salary.
Gripped by thirst, he lunged for the jug brought for washing, pulled it out of the hands of the young and no doubt terrified maid, and gulped it down. He motioned for more, and only after he downed another, did he feel sated in any way.
Only after his ablutions and a cup of the blackest coffee, soundly fortified with whiskey, could Stephen Pembroke, Marquess of Pembroke, finally focus on his surroundings. His footmen righted the armoire, and the maids cleared away the bloodied bedclothes and scurried away. The broken mirror, the tenth he’d smashed over the years, was picked up and his room brought back to some sort of order. Between mirrors and broken windows, if there was no one else in the area pleased about the Beast of Barronsfield; the local glazier was no doubt grateful for the business.
“Hanley,” Stephen managed to croak at last. Despite the water he had drunk, his throat was like dust.
“Do you know…?” God, how he hated asking this. “Have you heard—”
“The vicarage,” the butler began, then cleared his throat, pausing long enough to let Stephen know there was more.
“Out with it man,” Stephen barked. A stabbing pain forced him to close his eyes. He allowed it to pass, and let out a long breath, remembering some line about not shooting the messenger. “My apologies, Hanley. My head is pounding like the devil. Please, just tell me. Is anyone missing?”
“The vicar is missing most of his hen house, his dog—”
“Oh my God.”
“I believe that is what the vicar said, my lord.”
Mr. Darling, the vicar, owned a Scottish terrier who followed him happily around the village and was visitor and friend to the invalids and foundlings tended to at the small village infirmary. Stephen’s lips twisted in disgust. How could he have killed such a harmless creature?
“That is all the news that has reached me, my lord.”
A shallow relief set in, but he was entitled to none. It had been five years since the curse had claimed a human life. But it had. Long before his family curse had taken this darker, sinister turn, it had claimed five. There had been blood on his hands for years.
Gripping the side of his bed, Stephen forced himself onto his feet, then signaled for Hanley to help him get dressed. “Right. I will meet with the vicar to discuss compensation for his losses. Has Schofield returned?”
“Not yet, my lord.”
“Send word I wish to speak with him as soon as he arrives.” Stephen stood, his gaze fixed on the bedchamber door while Hanley tied Stephen’s cravat to the butler’s exacting standard. He felt like the devil, but he needed to look like a marquess, especially when he was about to go out among his tenants. After a few minutes of Hanley’s fussing over collars and cuffs, Stephen waved the man off. He had a parson to speak to. Another set of wrongs to be righted. Another set of rumors to face. It had been months since the old woman’s curse had reared its head, but he still felt unprepared for the horror of it. Stephen raked a shaky hand through his hair, and tried to collect himself. Tried to shake off the grip of the Beast.
It was becoming harder and harder to do.
Rosalind Schofield had visited the bright blue waters and pink sand of Bermuda, and once—though she could barely remember it—the rolling tobacco fields of Virginia. But it had been sixteen years since she’d last visited England, and the winding journey from Devon to Yorkshire allowed her to become reacquainted with much of it. Her father, Captain John Schofield, had long promised to take her back, but it was a promise he kept only in death. Both he and his crew had been lost at sea in the North Atlantic. She’d left her late mother’s sister and family in the colonies to come into the guardianship of her uncle and take possession of an inheritance that would give her a very comfortable living.
“I am sorry that our meeting is by way of John’s passing—he was very proud of you, my girl. Very proud, and I can see why. You are a fine young woman, Rosalind,” her uncle said, sitting opposite her in the well-sprung carriage spiriting them to her new home. His countenance reminded Rosalind so much of her father it both pained and comforted her. “I am glad to see you after all these months of waiting since the news.” He paused then smiled. “Of course, the last time I saw you, you were naught but an imp, reaching no taller than the last button on my waistcoat.”
“It is good to be with you, Uncle.” A curious sort of joy bubbled inside her. The unfamiliar feeling begat quiet tears and a smile all at once. Her uncle’s genuine pleasure in her company was a new experience. She’d lived most of her life in a bustling household in Halifax with her Aunt and Uncle Stanhope and their three daughters, where there was plenty of company to be had, little of it amiable. Rosalind learned early that a crowded room could be a very lonely place, indeed.
“We are not long now from Barronsfield,” her uncle continued in low, rumbling tones. “When we arrive, I will show you to your rooms, and leave you to rest and become acquainted with your new home. Later, if the mist clears, we can take a tour of the grounds, if you so wish.”
“I would very much, thank you.” She saw the nervousness in his eyes, and reached forward to take his hand. Having a niece to care for, even if she was a grown woman, was new for her uncle, and probably just as nerve-wracking as learning of the death of a beloved brother.
“Barronsfield is one of the most beautiful estates in all of England, and the steward’s cottage is very comfortable. I think you will be well pleased with it.” Her uncle brightened as he spoke. “I had some assistance from Mrs. Darling, the vicar’s wife, as to what would be suitable quarters for a young lady. In fact, she has invited you to the vicarage for tea tomorrow to meet some of the other ladies in the neighborhood. Some of the younger ones will be going on to London too, no doubt, once the season starts, so you will have something in common.”
“I am looking forward to all of it.” All except going to London. The idea of standing in a ballroom, being looked over—or worse, overlooked—did not appeal, especially at her age. Twenty-eight was well past the prime for having a season.
Rosalind had already spent far too much of her life with people who didn’t truly care for her, and to be bound in marriage to one was hardly an appealing fate. Her inheritance had given her an unexpected choice. The large sum could fetch her attention she might not otherwise receive at her age, and a reasonable match. But if she didn’t marry, by thirty she would inherit the total amount. She could travel, or own a nice cottage with a beautiful little library, and not have to tie herself to anyone. She settled further into the cushioned bench of the carriage and let out a little sigh. Two years was not so very long a time to wait.
The countryside rolled along, and beyond the stone hedges and fields, the trees were giving up their green color for fall’s golden hues. Passing into Yorkshire, the landscape changed, growing wilder with every mile. Craggy rocks and fields abundant with soft heather met a sky that seemed to have reached down from the heavens to touch it. Eventually, rolling fog and mist enveloped the landscape. Occasionally she could make out the ghost of a lone tree in the miasma, and it felt like she was on the road to some otherworldly place.
The carriage lumbered on until it reached the market town of Elmsdale. Thick gray clouds blanketed the tops of the stone and wooden buildings built in the time of Elizabeth. It was similar in appearance to many of the villages they’d already passed, and yet something about it left Rosalind a little disquieted. Lonely signs hung from deserted shop fronts, creaking on ancient iron hinges. Windows were shuttered, and the only sound was the rumbling of the carriage wheels on the cobblestone square.
A quick study of Uncle Reginald’s face told her something was amiss. The pink that had colored his cheeks a moment ago had disappeared, leaving a pallor that matched his graying beard.
Ahead, the steeple of an old stone church pierced the mist. Past the church was what looked like a parsonage, where a large group of men had gathered, clearly agitated. Her uncle pounded the top of the carriage with his walking stick, and Rosalind lurched in her seat as they came to an abrupt stop.
“Please stay here, my dear,” he said. “I shan’t be long.” Without giving her the chance to protest, he hopped out of the carriage and was immediately accosted by a rough sort of man, younger than her uncle by perhaps a decade.
“Coming to check out your master’s handiwork?” the stranger jeered.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Tom.”
“Don’t you start your blubbering with me. We know something is up—something evil, and we mean to do something about it, see?”
Rosalind peered out the window, catching her uncle’s gaze. He started walking away from the carriage, but he was soon surrounded by several others who were far too threatening for Rosalind’s liking. Her hackles rising, she jumped out of the carriage. A damp breeze wafted a putrid odor in her direction. Overcoming the assault on her senses, she strained to make out the worried, angry voices talking over one another.
The approaching thunder of hoof falls silenced the crowd. Seconds later, a huge black horse appeared, coming to a halt near the gathering. Two dozen heads turned in unison to the rider, who dismounted and strode in among the villagers. The man was taller than her uncle by several inches, and the breadth of his shoulders gave him a commanding presence. His hair, tied back in a hasty queue, was the color of straw in an August sun, contrasting with the heavy, black, woolen cape that hung about his shoulders. A flutter stirred in her belly and she abandoned propriety to strain her neck to get a closer look.
Her uncle immediately went to him. If Uncle Reginald was unnerved by whatever had happened here, he hid it well.
“My Lord Barronsfield.”
“Schofield,” the rider acknowledged. Rosalind studied the man who she knew from her uncle was his employer, the Marquess of Barronsfield.
The marquess spoke calmly with the vicar, who appeared anything but as he motioned wildly to the carcasses of fowl strewn over the yard and the remains of what looked to be a small poultry house. The upset on the man’s long, gaunt face was clear, even at this distance. She tried to pick out the man who’d been so angry with her uncle a moment ago, but there was too much frantic activity to focus on any one person.
“—six geese and at least a dozen chickens.”
“—last night. Horrible howling sound. Chilled me bones, it did.”
“—heard young Jack Gates saw the whole thing, ’cept he’s too scared to talk.”
The discordant voices continued unabated. She shook her head. What manner of beast could have caused such destruction and sparked such fear among men of hardy farming stock?
“Gentlemen,” the marquess called out with an unmistakable air of authority, and the din quickly settled. The crowd was silent, but the expressions on their faces spoke volumes.
Rosalind watched the marquess as he listened with what seemed like genuine interest to the vicar’s tale. The village men were appraising his actions as well, some obviously approving of the way the marquess confronted the ordeal, though far more were hanging back, clearly undecided.
“I assure you this will be dealt with to your satisfaction, Mr. Darling.” He shook hands with the vicar, who seemed to have calmed somewhat.
“Our wives are scared, your Lordship.” The voice came from the crowd, and several men stepped aside to let one from their ranks take center stage. The man, who looked to be a farmer, removed his cap and took what Rosalind felt for him to be a rather daring step forward. “Folks have been sayin’ some horrible things ’bout what goes on at Barronsfield, my lord.”
Horrible things? Rosalind stood a little straighter, cocking her head, doubting for a moment what she’d heard. Her uncle had yet to mention anything unusual about Barronsfield. And certainly nothing horrible.
“And what things might these be?”
“Just talk, your Lordship,” the man said, daring to look the marquess in the eye.
“Look, Harrison,” Lord Barronsfield replied, exasperation and fatigue in his voice. “I know you’re frightened. There is no man more angry than I about this situation. Everyone should know there hasn’t been a lord who dared to call himself the Marquess of Barronsfield who would let any harm come to his tenants or servants.” Lord Barronsfield’s voice rose above the crowd. “The truths and the falsehoods have all mingled to make this a murky tale, but I tell you Harrison, and every other soul under my protection, that I am doing everything within my power to end this.” He put out his hand to the farmer, who took it after a brief hesitation. They exchanged a firm handshake, seemingly satisfying some of the men nearby.
After they were done, the marquess and her uncle started walking toward the carriage, deep in quiet conversation.
Eager not to be caught disobeying her uncle, Rosalind hopped back inside, straightened her skirts, then pulled on the door to shut it. Before she’d had the opportunity to let go of the latch, the door flew open, pulling her off-balance. Rather unceremoniously, she tumbled out of the carriage, landing on the graveled park with a thud.
Almost as quickly as she fell, she found herself pulled to her feet by a set of large hands.
“Are you hurt, my dear?” Her uncle asked.
She shook her head, dusted her skirts as best she could while trying to reclaim her dignity.
“Sorry, Uncle. Aunt Stanhope always said I wasn’t the most graceful of creatures. I was hoping to prove her—”
“My dear,” her uncle began, clearing his throat. “I have the great honor to introduce you to my employer and your host, Stephen Pembroke, sixth Marquess of Barronsfield. My lord, my niece, Miss Rosalind Schofield.”
Rosalind’s head snapped up, and she stifled a groan. Rosalind had imagined her eventual meeting with the marquess. She’d practiced what to say a thousand times on the journey to Yorkshire. She’d envisioned her graceful address. Yet here he stood, having just picked her off the ground while she prattled on unawares. Heat flushed into her cheeks.
She dipped quickly into what she hoped was the ladylike curtsey she had originally planned for this occasion. The marquess said nothing at first, stood there, examining her as if she were a new species of cabbage.
Rosalind waited for him to say something—anything—to her. She clasped her fingers together and willed her herself still. She shouldn’t have been so nervous, but then she’d never met someone of his rank before. This was the devil the townsfolk had spoken of? He looked to be an ordinary sort of man. Well, perhaps ordinary was not quite the right word for him. Handsome, more like. His eyes were an incredibly dark brown—nearly black in fact—with an intensity that might have been off-putting if not for the gentle line of his brow. His cheeks were ruddied, and there was a haggardness to him that was unexpected for a man of his stature, yet it leant an air of wildness she found at once appealing and a little dangerous.
“Thank you for letting me stay with my uncle, my lord. It is very generous,” she said at last as she tried to control her nervousness.
“Think nothing of it, Miss Schofield,” he replied. “Allow me to extend my condolences to you on the loss of your father.”
“Thank you,” she said, surprised he would stoop to comment on her circumstances.
An uncomfortable silence followed. Every rustle of fabric, every shuffle of boots over the dirt begged for a response. Rosalind’s mind raced for something to say, but nothing of consequence was forthcoming.
He pressed his lips together, giving Rosalind the impression he wished to be miles away. Gone was the easy manner present when he spoke with the men in the village, or any hint of the smile she saw when he spoke with her uncle a few moments ago. He was guarded, and even a tad awkward. The tension stretching across his brow suggested he was suffering some discomfort.
“Are you cold, Miss Schofield?” he said at last.
“No, my lord,” Rosalind replied, confused.
She cast a glance over to her uncle who casually bounced once or twice on his toes, then with the slightest of nods, gestured to her feet. Rosalind, embarrassed, took the hint. She hadn’t realized she’d been bouncing on her toes, an old habit she’d tried without success to banish. “My apologies, my lord. The journey has been long. I can be a horrible fidget when I am forced to sit for any great length of time.”
“I was extolling the beauty of Barronsfield on the journey. She is quite eager to explore the grounds, and the village as well,” her uncle said.
“Especially the bookshop,” she continued, her nerves taking over, speeding up her speech. “I probably should not own to it, but I adore novels and fairy tales, though I suppose they have the admirable quality of keeping me still.”
“No Fordyce’s Sermons, or Mrs. Chapone’s Letters?” the marquess asked.
“Heavens no. I have tried, you see, but then I fidget even more.”
His only reply was a smile, but Rosalind caught something in his face that took her breath away. And then, as magically as it appeared, it disappeared.
A whiff of not-so-freshly killed hen brought her back to the mess around her. Trampled feathers littered the damp ground. A flash of brown fabric nearly escaped her notice in the hardening muck. Removing her glove, she bent and pulled the object out of the ground.
“What is that?” the marquess asked.
“I’m not certain. It looks to be a reticule, though a very modest one. Perhaps it belongs to the vicar’s wife?”
The marquess motioned to her uncle. “Schofield, perhaps this might be useful to your investigation?”
“Here my dear,” her uncle took the mud soaked purse. “I will inquire with Mr. Darling.” He exchanged an uneasy glance with Lord Barronsfield before leaving to find the vicar.
Rosalind returned to her scrutiny of the trampled ground, and scrunched her brow in concentration “Do the authorities have any idea of who or what did this?”
The marquess started, surveying her with a new interest. “You have not heard of me.”
“Interesting.” The tension in his brow lifted, and something approaching a smile teased his mouth. “Very interesting.”
Confused, she cast a glance over each shoulder then back to Lord Barronsfield. His hands were on his hips, his dark gaze fixed on her. Swallowing deeply, she tried to ignore the excitement rising in her chest and push aside any idea that she might be the object of his attention. Feelings like that only ended in disappointment. Luckily, her uncle returned before she could allow herself to be distracted by them.
“My lord, if you would permit me, I will see my niece home and then return to assist with the clean up,” her uncle said.
“Of course, Schofield,” the marquess said. “I do not wish to delay your journey further, Miss Schofield.”
“I hope the villain will be found.”
The marquess’s mouth hardened into a line. “I assure you, the villain is paying for his crimes.” He bowed politely. “I bid you good-day.”
Rosalind watched the marquess mount his horse and ride off until he disappeared down the road. A lightness carried her steps as she climbed into the carriage. She settled in, smiling at nothing in particular until she caught sight of the worried look on her uncle’s brow as he took his seat opposite her. He smiled, but distress kept the joy from reaching his eyes. The carriage moved along as before, but silence was no longer easy. She had a dozen questions for him.
“Uncle,” she said at last, no longer able to contain her worry. “I could not help but notice the rough manner with which some of the villagers were treating you.”
“Pay no mind to that, my dear.” He shuffled on the bench. “’Tis nothing but the foolish superstitions of simpletons, fueled by bad luck and ale.”
The obvious false bravery her uncle put forth didn’t make her feel any better. “Does his lordship know?”
“Heavens no, Rosalind. My dear, you must understand. The marquess is a very important man. Now, let’s get you home and think of more pleasant matters, shall we?” With that, he continued on about the details of her new parlor as if nothing unpleasant had happened. Rosalind chose to relax and allow herself to be swept up in her uncle’s enthusiasm once more. But somewhere in the back of her mind, the threatening voice from behind the carriage lingered.
So did the marquess’s intoxicating gaze, a look laced with sadness. She shook her head, chiding herself for even daring to give him a second thought. Though he was flesh and blood, she had a better chance with a mythical prince from one of her books. Or a fortune hunter. That would surely be her fate in London, where a plain girl with a good dowry might find marriage, but not love.
Better to have no marriage at all.
Though the morning fog had dissipated by the time Stephen returned his mount to the stables, the gloom was more reflective of his mood. What a mess. He’d forced himself to stand still when Mr. Darling showed him the broken body of his beloved little terrier, even while it tore at Stephen’s insides. And when he heard about Jack Gates, a stone had dropped in his gut. From what Stephen could discover, the lad was hurt, but would recover. Another night like this and even the most loyal of his tenants might turn their backs on him.
Walking across the fields of his estate, the small meandering lane that led to the steward’s cottage caught his attention. After years of absolute loyalty and dedication, it was very little for him to grant Schofield the favor of allowing his niece to stay at the cottage with him. But after this morning, he wondered if Schofield might change his mind.
He strode past the rose gardens, their blossoms long spent, thinking about the girl who had traipsed through the Darling’s poultry yard, her skirts rumpled from travel. That unceremonious exit from the carriage onto his boots pulled his mouth into a smile every time he reflected on it. He hadn’t spent much time around women in the past five years, but Miss Schofield was undoubtedly one of the more unconventional ladies he’d met. Unconventional was fine, but beauty was another matter. Beauty, he had discovered even as a boy, was dangerous for him. And far more dangerous for the ones he’d dared to love.
Miss Schofield would be safe from the Beast’s curse. She was neither too short nor too tall. Her figure was pleasant enough; she wasn’t thin, nor was she overly plump. Her complexion was neither drab nor brilliant; she had a light sprinkling of freckles across her nose that some might consider charming. Her eyes appeared unable to make up their mind as to color; at one moment they attempted blue, then seemed to settle on a greenish-gray. Her hair was not golden, like Catherine’s, neither was it raven black like Anne’s. Rather it was a shade of non-descript brown, worn back in the conventional fashion.
She was, without a doubt, one of the plainest girls he had ever seen. She lacked title and privilege and she was perhaps a few years older than the ideal, though still young enough to bear him an heir. At one time he might have been more particular, but he was running out of time. He was willing to forgo his scruples on that point. Barronsfield needed an heir.
He needed the most unremarkable woman he could find. And here she was.
There were no fireworks, no arrows to the heart, no rapturous pangs of any kind, nor even the hint of a note from a choir of angels singing above proclaiming she was “the one.” His breath did not catch in his throat at the sight of her, nor did he feel his palms tingle when he picked her up off the ground.
Still, her smile was pleasant. Nothing that set him into raptures, but warm, and even comforting. She spoke as if she had a brain in her head, which might make for pleasant conversation. By the ease of her manner with him, it was clear she was unaware she was speaking to the Beast of Barronsfield, or that such a creature even existed. It had shocked him into silence, and opened him up to the possibility that he would not lose Barronsfield after all.
Yes. She would do. Buoyed by hope, Stephen raced back to the manor, quite certain he could shortly have this whole marriage business neatly sewn up.