I'm excited to give a copy of one of books away this week! Leave a comment telling me what your favorite time period is, favorite scenario, or favorite type of hero and heroine to be entered to win. And enjoy the excerpts!
Cumberland, England, 1399
Avice Touchet plopped a hunk of dark rye bread on the table before her father who sat on a stool before she darted out the door to get the pitcher of cool water she’d just drawn from the stream. She’d risen early to bring him fresh water, and had set the pitcher on the wooden box outside the cottage. She thrust her little finger in the jug and was disappointed that it was not as cool as when she pulled it from the brook nearly an hour ago. The sun rays speared through the trees letting her know she needed to hurry. Pitcher in hand, she returned, snatching up his tankard from the end of the table as she passed.
With his cup now full, she kissed his cheek and dashed for the door.
“Where you be off to so early and in such a hurry, my dear?” Her father turned his upper body from his perch on the stool to look her way since his neck would not turn so well anymore.
“I am off to the keep to see if Mother needs my help.” Her heart skittered as she answered. Her words were true but her mother was not what, or rather who, drew her to the castle.
“I had hoped to get your help today.” His words stopped her at the door.
Her shoulders fell and she turned around. He’d not given her a choice. Oh, it sounded like she could decide for herself but the truth was he was telling her she could not leave. “What is it you wish me to do, Father?”
“A fox got one of our chickens early this morning. He dropped it when I chased after him with a stick.” He turned back to his bread, ripping off a piece with his teeth before continuing. “’Twas a moment I thought the animal would challenge me for the meal, but he turned away as me and me stick grew closer to his dinner.”
“Yes, Father. I will see to that straight away.” If she hurried she still could make it to the keep and watch Philip and the others practice.
“And when you finish that, go down to the Huguette’s. He has some ale for you to bring me.”
“What do I pay him with?” She steeled herself. She hated to go and ask for charity or to borrow. The family struggled to put food on the table more than her family. They were not fortunate enough to have someone working in the manor.
“He owes me it. Just bring it back.”
With a sigh of resignation, Avice walked back to the door, not in as much of a hurry. Once outside, she glanced around, looking for the dead animal. Seeing the large pot of water over the flame but not the bird, she peeked her head back in the cottage. “Where is the hen? I do no’ see it.” A small part of her hoped the fox had come back and taken its prey, but she pushed the selfish thought away, knowing it would mean a hearty meal for the family.
“’Tis in the trunk. I did no’ want the vermin to come back and steal that which is mine.”
Avice flipped the top of the wooden trunk up and pulled out the yellowish bird by its feet—a little relieved that it was the old hen that would peck at her feet and not the younger one she liked. She scooped up a stick that lay beside the near-boiling water and plunged the chicken in head first while still holding its feet. She pressed the stick against its body to keep it under the hot water as she slowly recited the twenty-third Psalm. When she’d finished she counted to ten for good measure and pulled the sopping chicken out of the water.
Rolling a log with her foot, she pushed it over to the trunk that had held the bird, tipped the log on end and sat on it. If she worked quickly she could have the job done and be on her way to the Huguette’s for the ale. The feathers slipped from the bird’s skin and she tossed them into the chest so they’d not blow away when they dried. If she worked swiftly the skin would remain loose and all would come out easily. Her hands made quick work of the feathers. Throwing the last few in the box, she glanced in to see how big the pile had grown. Her father wanted a pillow—an indulgence. There had been enough—for one—but she wanted her mother to have one, too. With these feathers there would just be enough for two. They may be small but they would be soft on the head.
The sound of footfalls on the ground drew her attention away from the trunk. She dropped the lid as the middle brother of three, all older than she, strolled up. “Good day to you brother.” He had been named after her father, Chester, and the family called him Chet.
“And to you, Avice. Is father inside?” He inquired.
“Aye, that he is.” She smiled at her brother, the most handsome of all three with his straight nose, square jaw, and honey-brown eyes.
When he’d gone in the house and closed the door behind him, she peeked back in the wooden box to get one more look at the feathers. ʼTwould make the grandest gifts she’d ever given her parents. She patted the top as she pushed off the stool. Later, when they’d dried, she’d put the feathers with the others she’d hidden away. Right now she wanted to finish the tasks given to her and be off to Rosen Craig before the day wore on.
As she turned to leave, her father’s worried voice pierced through the wooden door. “Are you sure?”
She waited where she stood, knowing she should not eavesdrop. But the concern she’d heard held her in place.
“Aye, ʼtis sure I am. What troubles you, Father?” Chet asked.
Her father had lowered his voice and she strained to hear but only caught “revolt and recognize him.” She frowned, wishing she could hear more. The exchange went on, both men dropping their voice to not much more than a whisper. Her belly knotted.
She crept over to the door and pressed her ear against the crack. She leaned in trying to hear better. Her brother spoke, “…only passes through.” She still could not hear most of their words so pressed in more and the door, that had not closed tightly, snapped shut. Hurrying back over to her stool, she pressed her hands into her back and gave a moan for good measure as her brother pushed open the door.
“Why can’t you have him arrested and demand our money back?” Olivia Macqueen frowned at her brother. It seemed a simple enough solution. She shuddered at the thought of once being engaged to the detestable man they now discussed.
Simon gave her a placating smile but his eyes didn’t dance as they would if the smile were true. “It’d be bad for business.”
Olivia shifted on the floral tapestry chair across from where Papa sat holding Mama’s hand. “Why? He deserves that and worse.”
Papa cleared his throat. “We could lose all confidence with our policyholders if they learned that one of our employees had embezzled funds.”
Simon sneered. “You mean if they found out they weren’t even real policyholders. This could ruin our family name and our business. I wish I’d never talked you into hiring Lloyd. Then he’d never have swindled us—” He stole a quick glance at Olivia, his eyes pleading forgiveness. “I’m sorry.”
Olivia’s throat went dry. Of late, it had been easy to forget what Lloyd Pratt had done to her. With the attention her brother’s old friend, Drew, had been lavishing on her, Lloyd had faded to an unpleasant memory. “Nothing to forgive. He means nothing to me now. Besides, his unfaithfulness was actually a blessing in disguise. I’d hate to have married such a scoundrel. And I wouldn’t have gotten to know Drew.” However, breaking the engagement with Lloyd had angered him so much that he had taken his fury out on her, requiring her to seek medical attention.
“Drew?” Simon wiggled his brows, mischief playing behind his mock surprise. “When did you start calling Dr. Warwick by his Christian name?”
Heat rushed to Olivia’s cheeks. Simon could be such a pest with his teasing. He knew very well she’d been calling Drew by his Christian name for some time. It was only around her father she’d avoided using it. Father had always felt the need to coddle her and Mother, more so after Lloyd had hurt her. No need for him to worry that she might have her heart broke again. “Do I really need to answer that, Simon?”
Simon chuckled, his eyes dancing. “I do believe my little sis is blushing. I think she’s smitten with my dear friend.”
Olivia pretended to glare at Simon. “I believe we have a more pressing matter at hand—seeing Mr. Lloyd Pratt gets his comeuppance.”
Papa stood and paced the parlor floor, his hands clasped behind his back. He turned, creases appearing between his brows. The gray sprinkled throughout his dark brown hair softened his features and gave him a distinguished appearance. “Simon’s right. We’ve got to handle this with utmost care. If word got out it could ruin us. And we don’t know how many people he wrote fake policies for or what other ways he may have embezzled.” He stopped and looked at his son. “How could we have missed this for a year?”
Simon brushed his fingers down his mustache. “It’s my fault. I should have gone over the books with a fine-toothed comb. Any man who can’t be trusted in one area can’t be trusted in others as well.”
“I suppose it would have been difficult to find missing policies or false claims without knowing what you were looking for.” Papa sighed and resumed his pacing,
“I should have suspected. After the cyclone of ’85 there were questions. Remember we had several people claiming to have policies that we could never find? I should have investigated then rather than letting Lloyd handle it.”
“He said it was just an error in the books and he’d taken care of it. We’d heard no more complaints. There was no reason to doubt his honesty at that point. What is done is done.” Papa returned to his seat next to Mama. “Tomorrow, first thing, we need to find out which clients are without policies and get them posted.”
Simon leaned forward, resting his arms on his thighs, hands dangling between his knees. “Do you know how much money that could take?”
“I don’t care if it takes our last penny. I’ll not have our good name in tatters.” Papa shot the words back like the kick of a rifle.
Mama, who never involved herself with Papa’s business affairs, picked up the fan suspended from her wrist and waved it in front of her face. Her dark blonde hair pulled back in a chignon set off her high cheekbones and her flawless skin. Olivia had been told often enough that Mama looked less like her mother and more like an older sister. Her beautiful face was now pinched with worry.
Olivia dragged her gaze away from her distraught mother and let it fall on her father. “I don’t understand why we have to suffer for what that dreadful man did. Why can’t we go to the authorities and ask them to keep the information private? Surely they would understand our dilemma.”
Papa gave her a patronizing smile, and she knew if she’d been within arm’s reach, he’d have patted her hand. “One thing I’ve learned in life, Olivia, is that if you tell someone your secret, it is no longer a secret.”
“But Mr. Pratt should have to pay for this. It’s not right that he walk away with no consequences and a large portion of our money.”
Still leaning forward, Simon fisted his hands. “Oh, he’ll pay all right and there will be consequences. I’ll see to that. Did he think he’d never get caught? He’s lucky that none of the people he stole policy money from have come to file a claim.”
Papa stood and took Mama’s hand, helping her up from the settee. “Enough of this for tonight. We’re upsetting your mother.” He gazed down into his wife’s eyes with so much love that Olivia’s heart hiccupped. Drew’s face came into view. She imagined the two of them sharing that kind of intimate love. The thought of spending her life with the man she loved warmed her.
When her parents had left the room, Olivia leaned in toward her brother and whispered. “So, what are you going to do about this?”
Simon stretched and yawned. “Tomorrow I’m going to try to make sure every client has an active policy.”
“You know very well that isn’t what I mean.”
He winked. “I plan to find the proof we need if it’s the last thing I do.”
Dr. Andrew Warwick left the hospital after checking on a patient and sauntered down Mazyck Street, unable to get his mind off Olivia, his best friend’s sister. When they were young boys, he and Simon saw Olivia as a nuisance—someone they could annoy when bored. Then they grew up and Drew’s medical studies occupied all his time. Simon took on responsibilities of his own, and they rarely spent time together.
But when Olivia showed up in his office last year seeking medical attention, he could hardly believe this was the little sprite he’d delighted in tormenting as a boy. She’d grown into a beautiful woman.
Drew gave in to his impulse, passed Meeting Street and turned down Church Street, heading toward the Macqueen house. It had taken him almost the whole year to gain her trust, and he knew why. After looking at her injuries, her story of taking a bad spill hadn’t rang true. He’d recognized the telltale signs of abuse even if she’d denied it.
Thinking about the late hour, he quickened his pace. He would continue past the house if the windows were dark. But if lights did shine, he’d visit under the pretense of seeing Simon as it was a bit late to visit a young lady. Having a good friend with a beautiful sister one loved was indeed an advantage.
The Macqueen’s home came into view. Lights blazed from the windows, casting yellow beams onto the lawn. Taking the steps two at a time, Drew couldn’t help but smile—the perfect way to end his night. He tapped lightly, and a few moments later the door opened. To his disappointment, Simon stood before him, a cocky grin on his face.
“Drew, how nice of you to come see me.” Simon leaned his shoulder against the frame.
“After a long day at work, I thought your charming personality would brighten my evening.” Drew grinned back and strained his neck to see beyond the slim body blocking his view.
“Looking for something?” Simon’s eyes glittered with mischief.
The sound of swishing fabric emerged. “Simon Macqueen, have you no manners? Invite our guest in.” His lovely Olivia looked as ferocious as an angry nurse when taking on an unruly patient.
“He’s my guest. I may not want him in the house.” Simon winked at him.
She pushed past her brother, giving him a playful slap on his arm, and smiled past him. “I’m sorry, Drew. My brother has the manners of a boar.”
Drew sidled past his best friend. “Shall we put him out with the rest of the herd?”
The tinkle of her laughter floated on the air like sweet music.
“Just you try. I can still take you down.” Simon’s words followed the couple. “And let’s not forget you two need a chaperone.”
Drew snorted. “I’m certain you were the one yelling ‘uncle’ the last time we had this discussion.”
Olivia intercepted. “Really, now. You’d think you two were still schoolboys, the way you carry on.” She took a seat by the window and arranged her dress.
Simon elbowed Drew. “You heard my sister— behave yourself.”
Drew took a seat across from her where he could easily take in Olivia’s beauty and put an end to the bantering.
Simon was always full of himself. That was part of the fun of being around him when they were young. But right now, Simon’s sister captured all of his attention.
Olivia rubbed her arm above her wrist. He couldn’t help but wonder if it still pained her. Her hand slid down to her bracelet dangling on her wrist, and she fingered it. Why was she nervous tonight? His gut twisted. Would she say yes to his proposal? He’d planned a very special Friday evening when he’d ask for her hand in marriage.
He gave her a soothing smile. “I’m pleased you’re still up. Seeing you has brightened my long day.”
She lifted her head and locked eyes with Drew, the corners of her mouth lifting. “As you have mine.” Her gaze shifted toward Simon, then back to Drew.
“I thought I was the one who had bright—”
Drew shot Simon a warning glare that stopped his good-natured friend midsentence. He wished he could be alone with Olivia, but that was not appropriate. Someone had to be a chaperone, but Simon was like a boisterous puppy.
“I’m looking forward to our special day Friday.” That was an understatement. He’d been counting down the days eagerly. She didn’t appear nervous now. His fear of her saying no was getting the best of him.
“As am I, Drew.” Her lashes fluttered.
His heart stuttered. He loved to hear his name on her lips. He’d never tire of it. Spending the rest of his life with Olivia couldn’t happen soon enough. She had to say yes when he asked her.
“Am I invited?” Simon teased.
“No.” Olivia glared at her brother.
Sweet mercy, she was beautiful. Light brown tendrils escaped the hair pulled up into one of the latest fashions. Beautiful brows arched over almond-shaped blue-gray eyes—eyes that breached his heart and soul. He caught himself right before he let out a sigh.
Simon cleared his throat. “Are you going to just sit there gawking at my sister?”
Olivia’s cheeks turned crimson, but she quickly turned to Drew. “Did you hear about the earthquakes that were felt in Summerville?”
Drew jumped in before Simon could remark. “I read an interview in the News and Courier. A Summerville resident was said to have heard a rumbling sound northeast of town, which was followed by an explosion that sounded like a cannon. But many are skeptical.”
Animation lit her face. “Some are saying a boiler probably blew at one of the numerous phosphate works, or someone was blowing up trees with dynamite.”
“I suppose it’s entirely possible that a tremor was felt. Time will tell.” He leaned forward. “What do you think?” He already surmised what her answer would be.
“I think too many people felt it for it to be some sort of an explosion. Some say that even Charleston felt the tremors. That’s too far for it to be anything other than an earthquake.”
Simon grinned. “Well, it caused a buzz that will keep Charleston talking for a few days anyway. Maybe we’ll get some more clients out of it.”
Olivia gave her brother a look that Drew couldn’t quite decipher. Simon only shrugged.
The next evening after Drew’s visit, Olivia sat in the parlor with her parents. She drew the needle up through the handkerchief she embroidered thinking about the camaraderie that her brother and Drew had shared the night before. “Simon sure flew out of here. You’d think he was late to see his lady love.”
Mama peeked up from her needlework. “If the boy ever finds one. I’m ready for grandchildren.”
“You can’t rush love. I learned that.” A shiver slivered down Olivia’s spine at the thought of Lloyd. She’d questioned if she would ever fall in love again after what Lloyd had done to her. He’d definitely hurt her in more ways than she could count. The welcome thought of Drew quickly replaced the unpleasant memory. She smiled inwardly. She wouldn’t mind giving her mother the first grandchild.
When she and Drew first started courting, doubt had harried her. As a little girl, dread would fill her when she saw him with her brother. The two of them together were as mean as cross-eyed snakes. Like the time they’d tied her shoes together while she napped in a chair, then stole her doll, woke her up and ran. When she jumped up to go after them, she fell flat on her face. The two laughed and disappeared with her doll. It took her the whole day to find where they’d hidden it.
Boys and tomfoolery must go hand in hand. Her brother now was a perfect gentleman, albeit a character—he’d never intentionally harm anyone. Surely Drew was the same. The two boys’ pranks were just that, childish pranks. She hated the way doubt tried to nudge its way into her thoughts. She needed to keep reminding herself that Drew was a doctor and had taken an oath to help people. He was nothing like Lloyd even if she’d known Lloyd for years and never thought him capable of the things that he did.
“Your brother rushed out of here to finish up some late night business,” Papa replied to her question.
“Did you get the policies written and posted?” Olivia inquired.
“We hope we were able to track them all down. Simon’s gone to check on a few loose ends.”
“Ouch!” Mama pricked her finger.
“Are you all right, dear?” Papa’s tender voice inquired.
Mama nodded and dabbed her finger on a handkerchief.
Papa pulled out his pocket watch. “It’s nine fifty.”
Olivia folded the white handkerchief she’d been working on and placed it in the basket beside the settee. She stretched her arms as she stood. “I think I’ll head to bed and curl up with Pride and Prejudice.” She waved her hand in front of her face to give herself some temporary relief from the heat. The sultry day hadn’t been relieved by an evening breeze. The curtains hung limp as an unusual stillness filled the air.
She reached the archway and turned to say goodnight. A long low rumble drifted in through the window as if a heavily-laden horse-drawn wagon approached on the street. But within seconds, the low rumble turned into a terrifying roar. The floor rolled beneath her feet. She grasped the archway wall. The whole house swayed as if dancing to the horrendous thunder. The chimney buckled and bricks spit forward like a child tossing blocks to the floor. A scream caught in her throat. Papa threw himself over Mama, his eyes locked with Olivia’s. Pain splintered through her head as her knees buckled beneath her.