Mistress at Midnight

By: Sophia James

Chapter One


June 1855—England

Stephen Hawkhurst, Lord of Atherton, felt the wind rise up from the bottom of Taylor’s Gap, salt on its edge. He frowned as he breathed in, a smooth wooden railing all that held him between this world and the next one.

So very easy to end it, to simply let go and fall into oblivion. Pushing harder, he felt the barrier give and a few stones, dislodged by the movement, hurled down the incline to disappear into nothingness.

‘If you jump, you would need to land exactly between that rock and the cliff,’ a voice said, one small gloved hand pointing downwards. ‘If you veer to the left, you will be caught on those bushes, you see, and such a fall could leave you merely crippled. To the right is a better option as the shale would be more forgiving before it threw you over the edge into the sea. However, if you excel at the art of swimming…?’ She stopped, the implication understood.

Stiffening, Hawk turned to see a woman standing near, a black veil hiding every feature of her face. Her clothes were heavy and practical. A lady of commerce, perhaps? Or the daughter of a merchant? God, what luck was there in that? Miles from anywhere and The voice of reason close by.

‘I may, of course, merely be taking in the view.’ The irritation in his words was unbecoming and he was a man who was seldom rude to women. But this one was far from cowed.

‘One would generally look to the horizon if that was the case, sir. The sun is setting, you see, and it would be this vista your eyes would be drawn towards.’

‘Then perhaps I am tired?’

‘Fatigue would show itself in a leaning gait and great exertion would be seen in dust upon your boots.’ Her head tipped down to look. Stephen imagined her satisfaction when she saw his shiny new black Hessians. He wished she would turn and leave, but she stood silent and waiting, breath even and unhurried.

Surveying the nearby paths, he realised that she was alone. Unusual for a lady not to be chaperoned. He wondered how she had got here and where she would go to next.

There was a hole in the thumb of her right-hand glove and an unbuffed nail was bitten to the quick. The hat she wore hid her hair completely, though an errant curl of vibrant red had escaped from its clutches and lay across the darkness of her clothes like rubies in a coal seam. Beneath the notes of a heavier perfume he smelt the light freshness of violets.

‘I came here often as a young girl with my mother and she would stand just where I am and speak of what was over the seas in all the directions that I might name.’ This was said suddenly after a good few moments of silence. He liked how she did not feel the need to fill in every space with chatter. ‘France lies that way, and Denmark, there. A thousand miles to the north-east a boat could founder against the rocky coast of the Kingdom of Norway.’

She had a slight accent, though the cadence held the timbre of something that Hawk did not recognise. The thought amused him for he was a master of discerning that which people wished not to divulge. He had made his life from it, after all.

‘Where is your mother now?’

‘Oh, she left England many years ago. She was French, you understand, and my father had no desire to stop her in her travels.’

His interest was firmly caught as he took a step back. ‘He did not accompany her, then?’

‘Papa loves poetry and text. His vocation is as small as my mother’s was large and a library filled with books was all he ever claimed to want in adventure. Her journeys would have worried him.’

‘The adventurer and the academic? An interesting combination. Which parent do you favour?’ The question came from nowhere, for Stephen had certainly not meant to voice it, but the woman had a charm that was…unexpected. It had been a long time since he had felt the sense of aliveness he did here with her.

One hand crossed to her face, pushing the gauze closer to her cheek. In The slanting light of sunset he could make out a finely chiselled nose. ‘Neither,’ she answered. ‘The will to do exactly as one wants requires a certain amount of spare time which is a commodity I can ill afford.’

‘Because you spend the day rearranging your father’s extensive library?’ He found himself smiling.

‘Everyone has a story, sir, though your assumptions lack as much in truth as any tale that I might fashion around you.’

Stepping back another pace, he felt the bush at his back, sturdy and green. ‘What would you say of me?’

‘I would say that you are a man who leads others, though few really know you.’

Such a truth cut quick, because she was right. He seldom showed anyone who he was.

But she was not finished. Taking his hand, she turned it palm upwards, tracing the lines with her first finger. Stephen felt like snatching it back, away from the things that she might or might not see.

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