Secrets of Midnight

By: Miriam Minger
Chapter 1

England, 1813

Near Porthleven, Cornwall

"Did you see the groom, Corie? His face all red and sweaty and his bulbous belly out to here? Lord, the way he was leering at Druella all through the ceremony with those little pig eyes! If I saw such a sight walking toward me on my wedding night, I'd fling myself out the nearest window!"

Fling herself Lindsay Somerset did, quite dramatically, Corisande Easton thought as her best friend tumbled to the ground in a swirl of white petticoat and silky blond hair.

Corisande's smile widened as Lindsay lay still as a corpse with her slender arms outflung and her pink-stockinged legs askew in a most unladylike fashion. Only the slight rise and fall of her breasts betrayed her. Imagining what that awful termagant Lady Somerset would say if she saw her stepdaughter behaving so wantonly, Corisande shoved away the unpleasant thought and focused again upon Lindsay as the young woman began to recite in somber dirgelike tones.

"Here lies dead a virgin bride, poor girl, wed to a man who resembled a pig. Perhaps if she'd been allowed to choose her own husband, she wouldn't be dead, she'd be dancing a jig!"

Corisande's burst of laughter was joined by Lindsay's as she sat upright and brushed damp bits of grass from her gray merino walking dress.

It was good to hear Corisande laugh. Lately she'd been too serious by far, so many cares weighing upon her mind. So many things to do. So many local wrongs to be righted. But Lindsay was determined that their last afternoon together would be as lighthearted as possible, Corisande's responsibilities forgotten if only for a short time.

For that matter her own worries as well, Lindsay thought as she glanced out across Mount's Bay, the water's surface blinding in the brilliant sunshine that had finally broken through the fog.

No, she simply wouldn't consider the possibility that her stepmother might change her mind about allowing Lindsay to finally have her London Season. Her father's second wife, Olympia, had been nothing short of despotic these past eight years since her marriage to Sir Randolph Somerset, but she couldn't, couldn't be that cruel. If Lindsay was forced to wait another year, she'd be twenty-one and well on her way to spinsterhood!

"A brilliant performance, Miss Somerset, and an even more apt observation about the groom." Corisande's voice broke into her thoughts, her friend pushing a stray lock of auburn hair behind her ear as she grinned down at Lindsay. "He did have the look of a prize Truro pig, and with an unpleasant nature to boot, but you have to admit Druella Simmons seemed quite pleased with herself, no matter that the marriage was arranged."

Lindsay met Corisande's smiling dark brown eyes, which were a color that Corisande matter-of-factly considered plain as Cornish mud but that Lindsay always assured her was quite lovely, especially with those amazing green tints. "Yes, I suppose Druella would be pleased to have captured a wealthy squire. She always claimed she would make the richest catch in the parish."

"No, I believe she said something about the whole county." With the gift of a mimic, Corisande affected a lofty nasal tone that sounded just like Druella, a local girl who had long lorded it over other young women of her acquaintance just because her father was a baron, albeit an impoverished one. "And then, my dearest, dearest darlings, you must all come to my beautiful house in Devonshire for tea."

Lindsay gave a loud hoot of laughter, but her grin became a grimace as she shuddered, remembering how the groom had lasciviously pressed his girth to Druella's slight frame after Corisande's father, the Reverend Joseph Easton, had pronounced them man and wife at the small church wedding yesterday morning. The disgusting man had practically been drooling onto his boots!

"Druella's won herself a marvelous big house and hundreds of pounds a year, truly. Each night at bedtime she'll likely wish she'd settled for less coin when that great white whale of a husband flops under the covers with her and demands his due!"

Lindsay caught Corisande's outstretched hand, her dearest friend's own grimace melting into mirth as she pulled Lindsay to her feet. Arm in arm, they set out once more along the cliff, the strong late March breeze, laced with salt spray and smelling of the sea and the lush promise of spring, whipping their hair around their faces.

Corisande was never shocked by anything Lindsay said or did, and Lindsay loved her for it. There had been so many times she had escaped the oppressiveness of her beleaguered father's manor for the comforting chaos of the Easton parsonage where she could be herself without any fear of rebuke. Just as she had fled this morning, climbing out a dining-room window when she heard Olympia trumpeting her name from an upstairs bedroom.

Heaven help her, she'd be damned if she spent her last day at home being lectured on the proper decorum for a young lady about to embark on her first Season! Not when her father's elder sister, Winifred, Lady Penney, had no doubt been directed to torment her with the same rules and regulations once she reached London.

Sobering at the thought, Lindsay sighed as she glanced at Corisande. "I know I've nearly hounded you to death, but it's not too late for you to come with me. We'd have the most marvelous time! I'll just tell Olympia" —even saying the woman's name was distasteful to Lindsay, who had never once been able to call her father's wife "Mother" — "well, I'll tell her that you could be another chaperone for me in case Aunt Winnie grows weary of all the balls—"

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