Karleen Koen is interested in history, particularly women's place in it. Love and hate, gender issues, and spiritual quests are themes she explores in her fiction. She lives in Houston and is also the author of Dark Angels and Now Face to Face. Her blog, called Writing Life, is at wordpress.karleenkoen.com.
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Excerpt from Chapter 1
Two voices, raised in anger, carried through the half-opened window of the library. Recognizing them, Barbara stopped and looked for a place to hide, a place where she might listen but not be seen. Seconds later, she was burrowing into the ancient ivy that crisscrossed the mellowed red-pink brick of the house. Entangled, dense, persistent, its vines as thick as her wrists in places, the ivy released the house reluctantly. Each spring it sent cunning, thin green fingers curling under the window frames and into the rooms, and each spring her grandmother calmly snipped the fingers to bits with a pair of sewing scissors and ordered the gardeners to trim it down to size. Now, in November, it clung to the house stubbornly. Already many of its glossy dark green leaves were dulled yellow-brown with cold.
"Fool! Impudent young fool!"
Her mother's voice carried clearly from the library.
"Did you imagine I would approve it? Were you going to come crawling like a whipped dog for my blessing? Blessing! I could kill you. Do you realize what you have almost done? Did you think-or has all feeling ceased, save for that hard prick between your legs?"
It was impossible to describe the effect of her mother's voice. Its usual tone was low and husky, but when anger and scorn were added, the result was numbing.
Harry muttered something, and Barbara tried to move closer to the window so that she could hear better, but the ivy was tenacious. It had been there first, being as old as the house, which had been built well over a hundred years ago in the time of Elizabeth I. The house sprawled over several stories, its once modern features now considered quaint and old-fashioned: twisted chimney stacks of brick, no two of them alike; sharp, pointed gables all across the roofline; windows with many small panes of blown glass; dark, cold rooms with uneven floors; and outside, arbors of wych elm, a bowling green, fish ponds, an old garden maze. Barbara loved it, for it was both her birthplace and her home. She knew every path and pond and orchard and creaky place on the stairs. She felt safe and beloved here...except when her mother visited, which was fortunately not often. It was Harry who must have brought her down from London, she thought. How could she have found out? She envisioned her mother's beautiful, white face and felt foreboding for her brother.
"You are such a fool," said her mother, and her voice paralyzed with its scorn. "The match is totally unsuitable. Now more than ever. John Ashford was appalled when I told him." Harry must have made some movement-she could picture him, crouched in a chair, his face as hard and cold as their mother's, his hands clenched with the effort to hold his temper-because her mother's voice changed.
"Yes, I told him! With his daughter standing beside him to hear me. If she had not cried like the weak, mewling child she is, her father would have beaten her, something I would have done, at any rate. God, I wanted to strike her! As for you, your conduct is unforgivable. Any alliance we form now is crucial-as you should know better than anyone!"
Each word had the clear, harsh sound of finality. Barbara knew that Harry, always thoughtless about the future, must be stunned by their mother's sudden appearance from London, by her quick, sure, numbing action.
"Damn the family!" Harry said. "And damn you. I love her. What does it matter whom I marry? There is no scandal I could create to equal what you and my father have already begun-"
The crack of a palm against flesh sounded. Barbara's body jerked as if it were she, and not Harry, who had just been slapped.
"Do not say your father's name in my presence again."
What venom there was in those words.
"He is out of my life. As Jane is out of yours. She is to marry her cousin within a few months; already the Ashfords are packing her off to London to stay with a relative. And you are going away also, Harry. Tomorrow. A few months' stay in Italy, a visit to France, should add the polish and patience necessary to a youth of your...what? Impulsive? Yes. Impulsive nature. I prefer impulsive to stupid. Your face, Harry! I wish you could see it. The mention of Italy calms the ardent lover within you somewhat, does it not?" She laughed. "I thought it might."
It was always fatal to show emotion to their mother; she pounced on it and turned it against you. Her voice was fainter now, she must have moved from her position in the room. Barbara had to stand on tiptoe, straining, the ivy around her uncooperative, to hear.
"You will obey me in this. Meres will be with you until you sail, so there can be no final, romantic farewells between you and your little sweetheart. And no final surprises nine months from now, either! It is over. Accept that. It was calf love, a brief spark, the first of many, I trust. I leave you to your thoughts, my dear Harry. If you are capable of summoning any."
There was silence. Barbara wanted to go to her brother, but she knew better. He had been humiliated, quickly, ruthlessly, thoroughly, and he would not want her witnessing the aftermath. She wedged her foot on a thick ivy vine; she would climb up slightly, just enough so that she could look in the window and see him-
She jumped. Without a doubt, it was one of the serving girls calling to tell her that her mother was home. Well, with any luck, she could miss her mother's visit entirely. Or, at worst, see her for a few moments tomorrow before she returned to London. She backed off the ivy, still torn between her instinct to escape and Harry.
The voice of the serving girl was closer now. Escape won hands down. She ran across the wide flagstone steps of the library terrace. She ran past her grandmother's faded rose garden, the bushes now bare, ugly with their thorns and fat hip pods, the lush petals of summer all gone into her grandmother's potpourris and brandies and wines and remedies. She ran past the clipped yew hedges whose dense evergreen shapes would hide her. The woods bordered the yews; once there it would be easy to spend the afternoon in the warm kitchen of one of her grandmother's tenant farmers, sipping tea, eating blackberries or walnuts while the housewife baked a winter wild plum pie and talked of the corn and barley harvest, of recipes and children.
She doubled her speed, her cloak billowing out behind her like a dark sail. The woods loomed ahead. She ran toward them as if her grandfather's hunting dogs were at her heels. It did not matter that now no one could see her from the house. Her mother was home.
In the withdrawing chamber of the Duchess of Tamworth, Diana, Viscountess Alderley, sank into an armchair and lifted her feet to an old-fashioned, embroidered, silver-fringed stool with heavy, dark, twisted legs. She was a beautiful woman with dark hair and violet eyes, a white complexion and sweet, red lips, all of which she emphasized to the fullest with paint and powder and dye pot. Her looks were deceiving. She had the stamina (and sensitivity) of a horse. All that giving birth to eleven children had done was take away her waist, which her stays disguised, and make deeper a hard line on each side of her face from nose to mouth. A young girl fluttered beside her to arrange pillows behind her back, her gown into more graceful folds. Diana waved the girl away, taking no more notice of the maidservant than she would an annoying fly. She surveyed a dish of comfits, small, fat plums preserved in sugar, on the table beside the armchair, selected one, and bit into it slowly. Some of the sticky plum juice ran down the corners of her mouth and stained the bodice of her gown.