THE ENGLISH HEIRESSby Roberta Gellis
Cerridwen Press February 12, '09
ISBN (E Format) 978-l41992-089-9
ISBN (Trade Paper) 978-141995-857-1
Leonie de Conyers’ life had been destroyed by the French Revolution. Her mother and brother had died in the prison where she had been raped and starved for no greater crime than her father’s title. And her father had died in the escape engineered by an utter stranger, who claimed he had come to bring her to England where she would inherit the property and wealth of an uncle. After what had happened to her, did Leonie dare to believe in such altruism?
Roger St. Eyre’s life had been destroyed by the girl he fell passionately in love with. Solange did not love him; she was selfish and vicious and extravagant. By the time she died, Roger felt dead himself. Perhaps he was hoping for the peace death brings when he set out to wrest his old friend Henry de Conyers from the murderous grip of the French Revolution.
Instead Roger and Leonie both found love and reasons to live—if they could escape exposure to the revolutionary fanatics ... and their favorite toy, the guillotine.
When one knew the secret, it was childishly simple. An iron hook lifted
away from a support, and the cask swung aside. Once they were behind it,
a pull drew it back into position and the hook, affixed between a hasp on
the back of the cask and a staple on the wall, held it rigidly. Inside, however,
it was black with a blackness no night can produce. There was a silence.
Roger clung to the hook he had just fastened, sweating with panic, totally
disoriented. Beside him there was a faint whimper that somehow expressed
the blind, abject animal terror Roger himself felt. His grip on the hook
tightened until the metal cut painfully into his hand.
he word echoed and reverberated, producing a ghastly image of endless black space behind them. Roger groped wildly with his free hand, needing desperately to touch something that would make the space finite. Fortunately, before her courage or his own broke, his hand fell upon Leonie's arm, and he drew her tight against him. She was shaking so violently her body fluttered against his like that of a captured bird, but she was silent now. Pity routed panic.
"It's all right, Leonie," Roger murmured, keeping his voice low but not whispering. The soft tone did not start the hollow echo, and the ability to control his voice gave Roger confidence. Still gripping the hook he pulled himself toward it until his shoulder touched the bulge of the cask. Then he turned so that his whole back rested against it, pulling Leonie with him. The solidity reoriented him. He was no longer lost in the dark. He let go of the hook and put both arms around the trembling girl.
"What a fool I am," he murmured, "to shut us in here without light. Just hold on to me. I will open it again. We can search for candles and water. There won't be any food, but if you are very hungry, I think I could walk back to the village and buy some."
"Food?" The whisper hissed away into the long dark, and Leonie, whose trembling had quieted, began to shudder again.
"Just speak low," Roger encouraged, "then the sound does not come back. There must be a turn or a door after a long corridor. That is what makes the echo."
Another silence followed, too long for a natural pause, so that Roger was just about to speak comfortingly again. He was interrupted by a soft giggle, and although he made no sound, he thought lurid obscenities. This was not the place he would have chosen to deal with a woman in hysterics. Nonetheless, he really could not be angry, considering what the poor girl had been through and considering that he had almost succumbed himself. Before he could take appropriate measures, however, Leonie spoke.
"You are just like papa," she said, still chuckling softly, and Roger realized that the giggle had been honest amusement, not incipient hysteria. "Whenever I was frightened of things like the dark, papa would give me a long explanation of what caused the fright. I used to feel so angry. There I was with my heart pounding, feeling as if I would die, and he was telling me about the curvature of the earth or the way light is reflected. But it always worked. By the time he was finished, I wasn't frightened anymore."
Roger did not reply. He should have felt glad his device had worked so well, relieved that Leonie was so calm. All he felt was a bitter shock of disappointment. She thought of him as a father! Well, why should she not? He was nearly old enough to be her father. He could think of nothing to say and merely relaxed his grip on her, but she did not seem to notice any awkwardness in his silence.
"I have food," her voice continued.
She was still so close, because she had not stepped away when Roger released her, that he could feel her fumbling in her skirt. The movement stimulated highly inappropriate images in Roger's mind; he would have backed away, except that he was already pressed against the cask. A protest rose in his throat, but it was checked again when the fumbling stopped. Leonie's hand touched his bare chest. Roger stiffened, but the hand moved to his arm, down to find his hand, and a round, slick object was pressed into his palm.
"Sausage," Leonie said, her voice light with laughter.
In a way the darkness was now a blessing. They lost each other, found each other. Leonie nearly poked out Roger's eyes when she offered the sausage again; Roger first could not find his clasp knife and then could not open it. Between amusement and exasperation at their clumsiness, they soon shook off the dreadful sensation of being blind, helpless, and hunted animals. They did not forget their danger. Even when they burst into laughter, they muffled the sound as well as they could. Nonetheless, they did laugh, at last clinging together with Leonie’s face nuzzled into Roger's breast and his face buried in her hair.
Both realized the intimacy of their position simultaneously. Roger's arms froze; Leonie's laughter checked. For a few heartbeats they were still, Roger fighting the desire to tighten his grip and use his mouth for a purpose other than laughter, Leonie torn by a strange dichotomy. She had the strongest impulse to slide her hands under Roger's coat and caress his bare body; at the same time she could not bear the thought that Roger would use her as Louis had. If Roger demanded payment from her body for his protection, in what way was he better than Louis? Yet, when his arms dropped away from her and proved he was a better man, she could have wept aloud with disappointment.
"Have you had enough to eat, Leonie?" Roger asked, sounding as someone had him by the throat. Leonie nodded. He could not see her but felt the movement against his shoulder. "I think we had better try to sleep then," he went on. "I wish it were not so cold, but if you take my coat—"
"Don't be ridiculous. You will freeze. I am wearing more than you are already." To silence him—because she was cold and wanted very much to be warm—Leonie pulled her rags as closely as she could around her and lay down. Beside her she could feel Roger sliding himself flat. It would be warmer, Leonie thought, if she could lie against him as she used to lie against papa—but she did not dare suggest it, and Roger was careful not to touch her. A wave of misery flooded over Leonie, and she uttered a small sob in spite of her efforts to be silent.
"Don't," Roger murmured, turning toward her. "God in heaven, I wish there was some comfort I could offer you."
His hand touched her tentatively, and Leonie could bear her cold and her sense of aloneness no longer. She moved so that she was pressed against him, shivering and sobbing. Roger clutched her close, half horrified and half delighted. He tried without releasing her to take off his coat, but she guessed what he was doing and would not let him. However, while it was open, her hands slid under it. Sensing a reasonable compromise, Roger pulled the coat around her as far as it would go. Leonie’s back was still exposed, but her arms were now warmed by Roger's body. Unthinking, craving only the comfort his warmth offered, Leonie pressed her legs against Roger's.
For a little while, as warmth and a sense of security diffused through her, Leonie sobbed harder than ever. Roger patted her backand murmured soothingly, just as he had done for his son when Philip was little and frightened. His sense of Leonie's femininity was temporarily submerged in his pity and concern for her.
Slowly, however, the sobs diminished to an infrequent shuddering sigh and Leonie lay relaxed, her head on Roger's shoulder. Her breathing softened and slowed. Warmed by her body and by his satisfaction inhaving calmed her, Roger drifted asleep also.
Some time later he was wakened by Leonie's movement. Still asleep, she was trying to snuggle tighter against him. Fuddled and sleep-dazed, Roger responded automatically to the feel of a body against his by kissing her face. He wondered muzzily as his lips touched Leonie's dirt-streaked skin why the bed was so hard and cold, then recognized he was not in a bed. Could he have been so drunk as to pick up a Covent Garden nun and lie with her right in the street? A shock of revulsion startled him really awake, and remembered where he was and why. In sleep his hands had relaxed their hold on his coat and Leonie. She was merely seeking warmth.
Unfortunately, Roger's body did not catch up with his mind. What with staying at his father's house and his trip to France, it had been longer than usual since he had visited his regular pleasure haunt. Still unaware, Leonie pressed her leg between his thighs. Instinct responded as if she had offered him a deliberate sexual provocation. Desperate he tried to swing his hips back away from her. The movement was sudden. Leonie jerked awake.
"What is wrong?" she whispered, still pushing forward toward the source of warmth. Then her breath caught and she froze. Her movement had pressed Roger's swollen rod into her groin.
He jerked himself away from her and sat up, pulling his coat off and flinging it down on her. Leonie lay perfectly still, terrified and thrilled. There was a stirring in her body, a response to Roger's arousal that she had never felt before and she did not recognize for what it was now. She felt him shift and bit back a whimper, not knowing whether it was a sound of protest or desire, but he moved farther away so that there was no longer any contact between them.
"I am very sorry," he muttered, his voice choked. "Please try to forgive me. I know you are offended, but, I—I had no intention of insulting you, Leonie. Men—sometimes a man's body ..." How the hell did one explain such a thing to a girl like Leonie? Roger's voice died.
"I am not insulted," Leonie faltered. She could hear him breathing, deep intakes of air followed by pauses. "I am sorry too," she added softly. "I should not have leaned against you. I am not so ignorant as that. It was—I was asleep and cold."
"It is not your fault," Roger said stiffly. "I just hope you are not going to be afraid of me. If there was someone I could leave you—"
“No!" Leonie cried aloud, seized by such a sense of loss and desolation at the idea of separation from Roger that she forgot the need for silence.
Instinctively Roger reached out and placed a hand over her lips. “Hush,” he murmured tensely.
Both held their breaths as Leonie's cry rolled and echoed back and forth in the tunnel, reverberating hollowly until all semblance to a voice was gone. They heard nothing more. There were many feet of packed earth and thick old beams between the tunnels and the rooms of the house above them. However, farther along, beyond the turn that sent the echo back to them, a narrow airshaft reached up through earth and floors into one of the chimneys of the château. From the hearths connected with that chimney issued a series of fading, unearthly moans, pulsing into silence as the echoes of Leonie's cry died.
In two different rooms of the château, men started nervously and peered around. Even though it was full daylight, the ruin and desolation were having an effect. Hatred emanated from the charred walls and shattered remnants of fumiture. Those who had destroyed had hated, and the ruins reflected that hatred back. The men glanced around once again and left the rooms to join their fellows and ask whether they, too, had heard—something.
Had only one man heard the sound, the others would have laughed him into silence, but they were searching in pairs so that the two escapees would not be able to overwhelm one man. The four men passionately supported each other, unconsciously increasing one another's sense of horror until they all began to look around nervously.
"It was the wind in the chimney," Marot snarled furiously. "I can tell you there is nothing and no one in this house, or de Conyers and his bitch daughter are hiding here and deliberately trying to frighten you.
"What wind? There is no wind," one of the men said angrily. "Then it was a bird or a loose stone," Marot snapped back viciously. "We must find de Conyers. Do you want him running to his friends in Paris and bringing the army down on us? He and Lafayette were bosom friends. Go back and search, I say."
Somewhat sullenly the men went back to their task. They had already been through the barns and stables and two top floors of the house, looking into every cupboard, turning over every heap of rubish and rags, while others stood guard at the doors and the foot of the stairways.
Most of them had lost their enthusiasm and began to murmur that de Conyers would not have been such a fool as to return to this house, which he must realize would be one of the first places searched. More likely he was hiding in the town itself—the gate guards all swore no one had been past them—or if they were lying, de Conyers must be well away on the road to Dijon or Paris already.
Marot alone knew a good reason for de Conyers to return. There had been money in the strongroom, money and jewels. He had got that information out of de Conyers's solicitor in Saulieu while questioning him in an effort to discover something discreditable about his enemy.