The Alabaster Hip, Chapter One
Dear Readers, thank you for your patience! Marlowe's story is finally ready to be released upon the world June 6th. Here is your exclusive first glimpse at The Alabaster Hip (click on picture to pre-order!):
IN WHICH A(NOTHER) PEER OF THE REALM SWEEPS MISS MINERVA JONES OFF HER FEET
THE HONORABLE MISSES Beatrice and Laura Leighton, spawn of the notorious Viscount Marlowe (not the devil himself—an alarmingly common and unsurprising misconception), were going to be the death of Miss Minerva Jones, teacher of grammar and composition at West Barming School for Recalcitrant Young Ladies. The coroner was sure to write that in his report when her body was discovered tangled up in the remnants of the little terrors’ latest experiment in torment.
If her body were ever discovered at all, which was doubtful. Between the remoteness of the academy in the wilds of Kent and the twins’ terrifyingly Machiavellian intelligence, archaeologists two hundred years in the future might very well be the first to come across her remains . . . if she was lucky.
And the twins claimed to like Minerva. She could only imagine what they did to their enemies.
Well, she didn’t have to imagine at all. She glanced over to the half-finished woolen mobcap she’d been unenthusiastically knitting for Fräulein Schmidt for days and winced. The poor woman’s head had been as bald as a baby’s bottom after the Leighton twins—and a straight razor—had finished with her.
The only reason the woman was still on the premises and not halfway back to Heidelberg was because she was too embarrassed to leave her room. And the fräulein, like most of the school’s female staff, didn’t really have anywhere else to go. That thought alone had made Minerva hold in the completely inappropriate laughter that had bubbled up inside of her when she’d seen the twins’ handiwork.
For this particular crime, however, she could hardly bring herself to blame the twins, for Fräulein Schmidt was one of the most unpleasant people Minerva had ever come across. It was no justification for shearing her bald in her sleep, of course, but . . . well . . .
Minerva made no claims to being a particularly nice person herself, especially when it came to feeling sympathy for a woman who had been blackmailing her for months. Perhaps Minerva should have rid herself of her Christopher Essex collection after her last employer, Lady Blundersmith, had sacked her for it, but while she wasn’t all that nice, she was stubborn. And Essex was a genius—she didn’t give a fig how scandalous he was or how the starchy headmistress was sure to have a conniption if she found out.
So she’d let the fräulein bully her out of a few pence a month to keep her post and her secret library and silently cursed the woman to high hell.
In Minerva’s most mean-spirited moments, she inwardly applauded the twins’ rough justice, for Fräulein hadn’t demanded her blood money from Minerva since her shearing. And the look on the woman’s face that Boxing Day morning after the deed was done . . . well, it really was worth all the pence Minerva had paid to her over the past year and a half.
No, she was not particularly nice.
She could only be thankful that she was on the twins’ good side. For now. They’d not been happy after she’d lost her temper with them tonight, though she had been elbow deep in frog entrails at the time . . .
Minerva collapsed on her small cot with a weary sigh and tried to rub the burgeoning headache from her temples. She may have secretly admired the twins’ handiwork with Fräulein Schmidt, but tonight had crossed a definite line. It was well past midnight, closer to dawn, and it had taken hours to sort out the latest calamity, which the twins had claimed was in the pursuit of science.
West Barming did not even teach science.
And this so-called experiment had involved dead frogs. A great deal of dead frogs. And their innards. How the twins had managed to procure so many of the creatures when they supposedly never left the academy gates was beyond Minerva’s ken at the moment. She wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the little hellions had sprouted wings. More likely they had taken a page from Fräulein Schmidt and blackmailed one of the staff into their service. It had already happened more than once in the three months they’d been in residence.
Normally Minerva was able to be more sanguine about the trials and tribulations of West Barming, but tonight she was just so bloody tired. The Honorable Misses Leighton were getting worse, their reformation not even a speck on a distant horizon, and she could only pray that their next “experiment” didn’t involve fire.
Rumor had it that they’d been packed off to the academy by their grandfather, the Earl of Barming himself, for burning down half a city block back in London. Minerva hadn’t believed the ridiculous rumor at first—the twins just looked so innocent at first glance—but that was before Fräulein Schmidt. And the rats. And the frogs . . . and that one time with the manure . . .
Dear Lord, the manure.
For one brief moment, Minerva actually missed Lady Blundersmith. But that moment was very, very brief. Five soul-crushing years at the beck and call of that hypochondriacal, self-righteous frigate of a woman was quite enough for Minerva. She’d take the Honorable Misses Leighton, the frog entrails, razors, and a disturbing predilection for fire any day, even though it often felt like she was merely trading one circle of hell for another.
She supposed the twins hadn’t stood much of a chance, considering their parentage. Minerva had rather firsthand experience with the walking disaster that was Evelyn Leighton, Viscount Marlowe. She’d carried the bruises around for months afterward to prove it.
The one rare ball Lady Blundersmith had deigned to attend the last year of Minerva’s employment had ended with two peers of the realm—the notorious viscount himself and his supposed best friend, the equally notorious Sebastian Sherbrook, Marquess of Manwaring (the “Most Beautiful Man in London” according to the Times)—brawling in the Duke of Montford’s giant sponge cake over a woman. Montford, the viscount’s other best friend (though Minerva had no idea how a man as reputedly fastidious as Montford could possibly be friends with someone as . . . calamitous as the viscount), had managed to sustain a concussion in the ensuing fracas, sending the rest of the guests into a titillated bumblebroth.
Minerva’s fate had been even less pleasant than the duke’s, as she’d been buried under the immovable Mont Blanc that was Lady Blundersmith in a swoon. Minerva wouldn’t soon forget the boorish Viscount Marlowe, with his broken, bloodied nose and uncensored tongue who had been the cause of all of the chaos. Nor those bright, too-intelligent brown eyes, so at odds with the rest of his rumpled, cake-smudged appearance.
Beatrice, from the top of her unkempt head of coal-black curls to the tip of her too-sharp, too-long nose, was her father’s child. Laura’s softer beauty and quieter nature must have been a gift from her dead mother, but Minerva had learned the hard way not to be fooled by that innocent packaging. They may not have been identical, but both girls had their father’s preternaturally bright brown eyes, after all, and his penchant for trouble.
After quickly undressing for the second time that night and scrubbing amphibian from her hands, Minerva tried to settle under her blankets and steal at least a few hours of sleep before sunrise. But between the gruesome image of murdered frogs lingering behind her eyelids (what had those girls even done to those poor beasts?) and the persistent suspicion that her life had become completely ridiculous, sleep proved elusive.
She kicked away her blankets and turned her eyes toward the ramshackle desk tucked under the tall casement windows. She had enough moonlight streaming in from them to finish her letter to Inigo without wasting paraffin, and if anything would put her to sleep, it would be that.
The doctor was too conscientious for his own good, his letters of polite concern arriving in the post every month like clockwork. If she failed to respond in a timely fashion, his letters and concern increased exponentially, so she had discovered it was easiest to send back a response as fast as she could to save him the worry. She might grumble about his high-handedness on occasion—not to mention feel perpetually guilty for being yet another weight upon his shoulders—but it was rather nice to have someone in the world who cared whether she lived or died. He was as close to family as it got for her these days.
But he was half the reason she’d left London after Lady Blundersmith had sacked her.
She’d planned to marry his brother Arthur . . . up until Arthur had run off to the war, despite her protests. After Waterloo had taken him, she had given up on the whole idea of marriage. She hadn’t the heart or the courage to attach herself to another man after all of the ones in her life had failed her so spectacularly—not that she had offers pouring in, considering how small, plain, and poor she was. Arthur Lucas had been her one shot, and she’d completely failed to hit that particular target.
Inigo, however, had somehow come to the conclusion that the best way to fulfill his promise to his dead brother to see to her welfare was to marry her himself. He’d thought it a perfectly sound idea when he’d broached the subject. She’d thought it was complete lunacy. As much as she admired and cared for Inigo, her feelings for him went no deeper than his for her.
She couldn’t deny that Inigo’s proposal had nearly swayed her resolve, though, for he was one of the best men she knew and unquestionably attractive underneath that ridiculous facial hair he was so fond of. And perhaps some nights she did lie awake regretting turning him down.
But it didn’t seem right to accept his proposal, fond as she was of him, for she knew his persistence on the matter was only because of his grief at losing his own fiancée, Yvette, around the same time as his brother. He had never recovered—never would enough to seek out love again—and she couldn’t blame him. After losing first her father and then Arthur, she herself had not been able to bring herself to risk her heart again. Although . . .
Well, she’d have to admit that she would certainly consider encouraging one particular gentleman, but so would most of the female population of the country. She doubted even Lady Blundersmith would have the strength to turn Christopher Essex away, despite her crusade against the man’s poetry. The woman had blushed to her toes after Minerva had made the mistake of reading a passage from Le Chevalier d’Amour to her one evening years ago. But Lady Blundersmith was convinced that anything that got her blood up had to be unhealthy, and she’d quickly added Essex to a long list that included music by Beethoven, fresh air, regular bathing, and unnecessary exercise.
No one knew Christopher Essex’s true identity, but that mystery, along with his verse, was enough to gain him a following even more rabid than Byron’s. Minerva had been no more immune to his siren song than any other female under the age of one hundred. After she’d calmed Lady Blundersmith down following that failed recitation, she’d smuggled Chevalier to her own room and devoured it for days. She’d been addicted ever since.
Essex’s poetry had made her feel . . . well, not alone for the first time in years. Made her feel like anything but the pragmatic, sensible woman she’d always prided herself as being, transporting her outside of her narrow reality. She thought herself deserving of this small indulgence, this small thing of beauty, in a life of diminishing prospects and poorly paid drudgery.
She didn’t dare lump herself with the poet’s more . . . overzealous followers—the so-called Misstophers, who swooned at the mere mention of his name (or that one Bedlam-bound fanatic who’d threatened suicide in a letter to the Times if Essex didn’t marry her). But Minerva was only human, and she couldn’t say she wasn’t guilty of a little daydreaming of her own when it came to the secretive poet. Anyone who could write such exquisite poetry was surely just as exquisite a man.
She groaned inwardly at her fancifulness, casting off her dressing gown and cracking open one of the casement windows over her desk. Even though it was only February, she was absolutely boiling. She had no idea how the rest of the academy was a frozen mausoleum, yet her room felt like it was in the bloody tropics year-round.
She unbuttoned the top of her nightdress, revealing a shocking expanse of chest. But she was in the privacy of her own room. It wasn’t as if anyone was going to fall out of the heavens, notice her dishabille, and report her to the headmistress. Fräulein, the odious snitch, who could always be counted upon to catch Minerva at the most inopportune moments, was quarantined by her own wounded vanity, after all.
She sat down at her desk and glared at the half-written letter to Inigo on the blotter. She sighed, opened another button on her gown just because she could, uncapped her inkpot, dipped her quill, and continued to write one of the most boring letters in the history of boring letters. In order to spare poor Inigo apoplexy, she ended up having to censor anything even remotely interesting that had happened to her in the last few months. So she did not tell Inigo about the frogs or the manure.
Or Fräulein’s haircut.
Or the blackmail. That would necessitate admitting to him that she had managed to rescue her book collection from Lady Blundersmith’s wrath. He’d never approved of or understood her weakness for Essex and would only be even more disappointed in her than he already was to learn she had kept the “instruments of her downfall,” as he’d called them in his last letter.
She did not tell him she was going out of her mind with boredom, stuck in the gray walls of the academy.
Nor did she tell him she missed London desperately, even though she used to complain constantly about Lady Blundersmith’s refusal to leave the city . . .
Minerva dropped her quill midstroke and nearly fell backward in her chair at the sound of the loud, deep voice drifting in through the open window. She’d often heard the caretakers’ voices echo up to her tower in the early morning hours, but it was still much too early for the day’s work to begin.
She stood and peered out the open window into the gloom. The moon was nearly full, so she could just make out the lawn far below her window. She scanned it for the owner of the voice, but could see no sign of life. She held her breath, listening hard for a moment, but she heard nothing but the howl of the wind and the occasional groan of the weathervane on the rafters above her attic room.
Perhaps that was all she’d heard, though she’d never known it to creak out the King’s English in the past.
She ducked her head inside after casting a bewildered glance toward the roofline, and turned back to her letter.
“Motherfu . . .” That word was cut blessedly short with a strangled sound and heavy thud. “Bloody buggering bastard, it’s bleeding high up here!” the gruff voice continued after a pause.
Not the weathervane, then. And not the groundskeepers, a father and son team with a broad, nearly indecipherable Kentish accent. No, this speaker was all drawling, growling public school underneath that foulmouthed London cant. And it was definitely a man, a strange man. At her attic window. Five stories high.
Two large hands suddenly appeared, gripping her open windowsill, and Minerva stumbled back with a gasp, knocking her hip against her desk and sending the contents flying to the floor.
“What the devil?” that masculine voice growled again, the hands stilling at the commotion she’d caused.
On a sudden inspiration, Minerva rushed forward and stabbed at the man’s hands with the quill still clutched in her fingers. This did nothing but stain the man’s knuckles with black ink and turn his growls into full-fledged cursing, the likes of which Minerva had heard only from her late sailor father . . . and from the foulmouthed Lord Marlowe at that horrible winter ball two years ago.
In fact, the intruder’s voice rather resembled the rumbling baritone that had been so unfortunately etched into Minerva’s aural memory that fateful night.
Minerva tossed aside her broken quill and searched around the room for something more substantial with which to defend herself, for a man climbing into an attic window in the dead of night could hardly be up to anything good. But before she could make a move across the room, the man was hoisting himself up onto the sill with a groan.
He was an extremely tall and disreputable-looking specimen, whose broad shoulders blocked out the moonlight and cast a menacing shadow over Minerva from top to toe. She didn’t manage to make out much more than a pair of dark, glinting eyes and a head of equally dark, shaggy hair—and oddly, what appeared to be a man’s red silk dressing gown—before he was tilting in her direction, his massive arms spreading wide to brace himself.
In sheer panic and having no wish to become like a heroine in those dreadful gothic novels Lady Blundersmith had secretly enjoyed (the hypocrite), she pushed at the figure with all of her strength.
Two huge pawlike hands wrapped around hers, holding tight, and for a moment she feared he meant to take her with him out the window. Death by defenestration was not at all how Minerva had envisioned her life ending. The Leighton twins weren’t involved, for one—unless this was yet another one of their pranks gone very, very awry.
She screamed in terror, for that was what one did when plummeting from old Norman keeps with strange men, and tried in vain to jerk her hands away as clothing ripped and her feet left the floor.
It took no more than a blink of an eye for her to realize that she wasn’t falling forward, but rather backward, and just another blink before she was slamming into the floorboards, the wind knocked out of her body at the impact. One last blink, and the intruder landed on top of her, whacking the rest of her breath from her lungs.
Twice in two years! How was it possible that she’d ended up squashed like a bug under someone twice in two years! Granted, the intruder was not Lady B’s size (that is, the size of HMS Victory), but he was no butterfly either. He was the approximate weight of a blacksmith’s anvil, and just as immovable.
And his hands had landed in as rude a place as possible upon her anatomy. If he had expected to find some padding there to cushion his fall, he was out of luck, for her chest had all the variation in landscape of East Anglia. But it was also rather exposed since she’d shucked her dressing gown and loosed all of her buttons earlier, thinking herself quite safe from molestation in her own room. All of the tussling about hadn’t helped either, and the ripping noises she’d heard as she fell must have been the rest of her bodice.
He was fondling her naked breasts.
Even Arthur had never gotten so far.
She would have screamed again had he not squashed all of the air from her lungs. She brought her knee up, just as her father had taught her, and aimed for the seat of his masculinity. He shifted to the right just in time, and her knee only managed to catch at his hip. His balance was thrown off by the blow, however, and he moved his hands from her breasts to the floorboards on either side of her head to brace himself.
Her breasts, at least, thought this a much better arrangement.
“Oi!” the man said, indignant, warm breath gushing over her forehead, eyes flashing with indignation. “No need for that, madam!”
She tried kneeing him again but only succeeded in causing him to collapse even more fully across her chest. He was hot as a furnace—unnaturally so, as if he were fevered, though she hardly made a habit out of taking the temperature of men’s bodies. And he smelled strongly of leather, bay rum, something almost medicinal—spirits, most likely—and a fair bit of mannish sweat.
She began to struggle in earnest, and so did he, although he didn’t seem in any particular hurry to molest her again. In fact, she couldn’t figure out what he was doing with all of the tugging and grunting on his end, but he did seem to be going out of his way not to touch her, despite the fact that they were hopelessly tangled together. “Would you please remove yourself!” she finally managed to breathe out once his bulk shifted from her chest.
“I am trying, madam,” the man growled. “But my banyan is stuck beneath your bony arse!”
She gasped in outrage and shoved at his shoulders before she gave in to the urge to claw out his eyes, as she so desperately wanted to do. He reared back, as if reading her desire to maim, and the moonlight finally revealed his face. A crooked, bladelike nose that had been broken one too many times. A broad forehead hidden beneath a messy fringe of brownish curls. Hawklike, rough-hewn features more startling than truly handsome. Full, mobile lips so at odds with the rest of his stark angles. And those eyes. Oh, she remembered those eyes. She’d seen them just hours before in duplicate, gazing up at her with false contrition amid piles of dead amphibians.
Though he looked a bit changed from the man she recalled from two Novembers ago—too thin, too pale, nearly a shadow of that bear of a man who’d brawled and cursed his way across the Duke of Montford’s ballroom—there was no doubt in her mind that she was squashed beneath Lord Marlowe.
She’d only had to think of the devil, it seemed, for him to drop out of the heavens—and onto her bosom.
“You!” she breathed.
His craggy, bushy-eyed brow furrowed. “Me?”
Clearly he had no recollection of her. And why should he? He’d doubtless been in his cups that night, if not concussed from the Marquess of Manwaring’s coshing, and would never remember the wallflower he’d inadvertently caused Lady Blundersmith to faint upon, even though she’d told him how to stop his bloody nose.
She had half a mind to remind him, but before she could get another word out, the door to her room swung open, and half the school’s staff—including the baldpated Fräulein Schmidt, wielding a candlestick—burst through the room.
Minerva glanced between the gathering, gasping throng—Fräulein Schmidt was starting to smirk, the cow—to the half-dressed viscount hovering above her, and then on to her exposed bosom, and groaned.
She couldn’t even begin to fathom why the viscount was climbing the walls of West Barming in a red dressing gown at three in the morning, but she knew without a doubt that it meant trouble.
This was not going to end well.