Susanna’s Secret – Joyce Alec

“My lord, you have received a note.” A chill ran through Benedict as he looked up to see his butler holding out a letter for him. His heart turned over in his chest as he picked it up to reveal that yes, this was precisely as he had feared. The wax held no seal. “There is no need to wait for a reply,” he said to his butler, trying to speak as nonchalantly as possible. “I will ring the bell if I need anything.” Marks, his long-suffering butler, nodded but said nothing, turning on his heel and walking back toward the door. In a moment, the door was shut tightly behind him again and Benedict was left alone. The Earl of Knightsbridge. His name was written in a sloping hand on the front of the letter. The sight of it sent another flurry of fear all through him, making him shudder. What is it they would be demanding this time? Everything in him wanted to throw the letter in the fire, unopened and unread, but Benedict did not dare to do so. The first time he had received such a note, he had ignored it entirely, thinking it to be nothing more than mischief on someone’s part. Perhaps an acquaintance looking to frighten him. But then his mother had been injured whilst out on a gentle walk around the grounds, and Benedict had been forced to reassess the matter.

The note that had arrived after that had told him that if he ignored any further letters, then his mother might not only take a tumble the next time. Ever since then, he had been forced to obey. With a heavy heart and reluctance in his spirit, Benedict snapped open the wax and unfolded the letter. It was brief, as it always was, telling him what he was expected to do next. Set food and wine out in your cellar, the note said. This evening and the next. And do not go anywhere other than your bedchamber from dusk until dawn. A shudder ran through him as he rose from his chair, flinging the note into the fireplace. It caught at once, the embers setting it alight and turning it into nothing but dust. Leaning heavily on the mantlepiece, he looked down at the grey ashes and felt his heart sink to the floor.

He had no other choice but to obey, even though he did not know what was happening or why he was doing so. Who required food and wine for the next two days? Who would be present within his own house—albeit his cellar—forcing him to remain in his bedchamber? Groaning, Benedict let out a long sigh and closed his eyes. With his grand estate close to the open sea and a cellar with a door that led to the beach itself, Benedict had very little doubt what his cellar was being used for. The beach itself was shrouded by cliffs and crags, meaning that small boats certainly could come and go without being noticed by anyone. “Smugglers,” he muttered, raking one hand through his hair. “I am sure of it.” And yet, despite this certainty, there was nothing that Benedict could do. The estate was his and yet it felt as though it belonged to someone else entirely. He had no control over who came and went from his cellar, no other choice but to do as he was tasked. He did so out of fear—fear that his mother would come to great harm, should he refuse to obey.

That knowledge made him furious beyond measure, for no one wanted to be pushed toward obedience out of anxiety and terror. And yet that was precisely what was being done to him. “Benedict?” The door opened at once, without even so much as a knock, and Benedict was forced to turn around, his hands clasping behind his back and what he hoped was a look of indifference on his face. “Yes, Mother?” he asked, allowing himself a rather obvious sigh which she either did not notice or chose to ignore. “You have entered again without knocking, I see.” His mother, with her dark hair now streaked liberally with grey and flashing green eyes that Benedict knew he himself had inherited, stood with her hands on her hips. “Knightsbridge,” she said firmly. “We are to go to town for the Season, yes?” Benedict groaned inwardly but said nothing. His mother had been very insistent indeed that they go to London for the Season but he, of course, had not been able to accept given all that was going on at present. He dared not step away from his estate for fear that it might become overrun with his enemies, who would then be able to use his estate as they pleased.

Or they might punish him for leaving without their agreement. “I do not think so, Mother,” he said as she arched one eyebrow. “I have plenty to do here and—” “You did not linger in London last Season, Benedict,” Lady Knightsbridge stated, her eyes still fastened to his. “And you would not take me to London for the little Season either.” “I am well aware of that, Mother,” Benedict replied as calmly as he could as he wandered away from the mantlepiece. “But if you wish to go to London, there is no reason why you cannot do so yourself.” He shrugged one shoulder. “I have no wish to attend this Season.” His mother eyed him carefully but said nothing, leaving Benedict in a somewhat uncomfortable state. He knew all too well that his mother would not accept the simple explanation that he had just given her but would, in fact, require the truth from him.

A truth he had no intention of giving. “I—I can make arrangements for you to attend, Mother, of course,” he added when she said nothing. He began to turn toward the window, not wanting to continue looking into her glaring eyes. “The townhouse can be easily prepared and—” “Need I remind you that you are in need of a wife?” The words flung him back a step and he stumbled, turning to look at his mother. “I am aware that I need a wife, Mother, but it is also for me to decide when I will marry, is it not?” “You have no brother to take over this line if the worst should happen,” his mother said starkly, throwing up her hands as though he were being deliberately irritating. “Why should you wait?” Benedict could give her no answer. How could he tell her that, whilst he had been in London last Season for a short time, he found no one that appealed to him—and he certainly could not abide the thought of marrying someone who did not even capture his interest. “And you are quite determined not to go to London,” his mother continued, clearly exasperated. “You are being ridiculous and quite foolish, and I do not understand why.” Shaking her head, she dropped her hands to her sides.

“Well, if you will not go to London, then London shall have to come to you.” Benedict’s heart seemed to stop as his mother continued to speak, although it now appeared that she was speaking more to herself than to him, for she began to murmur to herself, counting things on her fingers and nodding as though she were making a good many plans. He did not know what to say, his stomach tightening as he watched her with careful eyes, his heart beginning to quicken with panic. Just what did his mother intend? “Yes, I think that should do it,” she said, somewhat briskly. “Mayhap you will find one of these young ladies suitable.” “Mother,” Benedict said slowly, his brows lowering over his eyes. “What is it you intend to do?” She lifted her gaze to his, her eyes clear. “A house party,” she said briskly. “That is what we shall have. A house party.

A most excellent one at that. I shall be in charge of the invitations, of course. And the menu. It need only be a few days with us. A little less than a sennight, perhaps.” Her smile brightened and she lifted one shoulder. “Of course, if you find no one of interest at the first house party, then you shall simply have to host another one.” Her shoulder dropped although her smile lingered. “And mayhap even a third.” “Mother,” Benedict replied, his brows furrowing as panic captured his heart.

“I cannot have a house party. I—” “Do not speak such nonsense; of course you can,” she said with a wave of her hand as she turned toward the door. “As I have said, you need not worry about anything. I shall make certain that all of the arrangements are taken care of. All you need do is prepare yourself to be a charming host—as well as tell me which gentlemen you would wish me to invite. Of course, we shall have to invite the honorable Mr. Easthill, given that he is your nearest cousin and lives so near to us.” She turned and smiled at him, but Benedict could only feel a good deal of fear, his stomach twisting this way and that. “Good afternoon, Benedict.” “Good afternoon, Mother,” he said dully, realizing that the situation was being taken entirely out of his hands.

There was nothing for him to do but sit back and allow his mother to make all of the arrangements, but it was clear that she did not understand the difficulties that would face him in doing so. How could she? She had no knowledge of the notes that came to him, of the struggle that he now faced. Could he tell her of them? Could he share them with her? The instant the thought came into his mind, Benedict threw it aside. He could not do so, for fear of what his mother would do with such information. There was very little doubt in his mind. She would, in all likelihood, storm down to the cellar in the middle of the night and demand to know just who was moving about in such a stealthy manner. He did not want to think what would happen to her thereafter. “Then I have no other choice but to permit this house party to go ahead,” he said to himself, sitting down heavily in his chair and dropping his head in his hands. “No other choice.” His mother would get her way, it seemed, and Benedict himself would, most likely, be the one to bear the consequences.

1 “Father?” Miss Susanna Millerton rapped lightly on the door of her father’s study and heard him calling for her to enter. Putting a smile on her face, she pushed open the door and stepped inside, her heart hammering as she wondered why he had called for her. “Ah, Susanna,” her father murmured, his eyes half closed as though he were struggling not to fall asleep. “I have something for you.” Reaching over, he held out something toward her with one hand and gingerly, Susanna reached for it. “It is an invitation,” her father continued, sitting back in his chair as he finally allowed his eyes to close completely. “An invitation to a party of some kind.” Susanna’s stomach dropped and she hastily read the letter, her eyes drifting over the words. Realizing she had not taken it all in, Susanna forced herself to read it again, taking great care to absorb everything. “It is from Lady Knightsbridge,” she murmured, speaking of the lady who resided on the estate some twenty miles away.

“It appears that she is to have a house party. Or that she is organizing one on behalf of her son.” Her father snorted. “Most likely, Lord Knightsbridge does not know anything about her plans,” he said as one of his eyes drifted open, only to close again. “You are going to attend, Susanna, I suppose?” Susanna hesitated, looking down at the invitation again. “You will attend also, Father?” Lord Tollerton shook his head, one hand thrown out toward her. “You know that I detest such things,” he said with an injured air. “Surely, you will not ask me to attend with you.” A little relieved but unwilling to show it for fear that her father would ask her why she was less than eager to go, Susanna nodded and let out a small sigh. “I understand, Father.

” “Which is why I have asked your aunt, Lady Pendleton, to attend with you,” her father added with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye. “I know that I have not been a terribly involved father when it comes to you, my dear Susanna, for I have been much too interested in having your brother settled.” His smile faded and he shook his head. “And now that he is wed and the line almost fully secure, I should be doing all I can for you, should I not?” Susanna, who had only once been to London for the Season and only so that her brother could find a suitable match, gave her father a small smile. “You have not treated me very poorly, Father,” she told him honestly. “I presumed that we might go to London for another Season at a time that you chose.” “That is very good of you,” her father said, a regretful look in his eye. “You are much too understanding, my dear girl. Your heart is much too kind.” Susanna, who knew very well that her heart was fickle and who felt nothing short of loathing over how she was behaving at present, said nothing.

“Now,” her father continued, much more briskly as though the time for emotional language was now quite at an end, “your aunt is arriving by the week’s end, although she will only rest here overnight since the following day, you are to travel to Lord Knightsbridge’s home.” His smile grew and his eyes twinkled. “Imagine if you were to catch an earl, my dear!” “I do not think that is the least bit likely, Father,” Susanna said quickly, thinking that nothing could be worse than being pushed toward the gentleman. “Indeed, I am even surprised that he has invited me, given that we have only met on one occasion.” Even though Lord Knightsbridge was their closest neighbor within the upper classes—if one could still be considered a neighbor twenty miles away—Susanna had only met the gentleman in London, when she had been there with her brother. She remembered him as being somewhat intimidating, with his broad shoulders, tall stature, and dark hair, which had been matched by a rather dark expression. When he had greeted her, he had done so cordially and with all the expression that she expected of a gentleman, but his eyes had not flickered with interest nor lingered upon her for long. She did not expect anything from this particular acquaintance. Lord Tollerton clicked his tongue at her remark and shook his head firmly. “I am certain that you will be an object of interest, Susanna,” he said decisively.

“Perhaps not to Lord Knightsbridge but certainly to one or two of the other gentlemen who are sure to attend.” He chuckled at her frown. “And you must not turn yourself away from their inquiring glances, my dear. After all, you must wed!” “Indeed, Father,” Susanna murmured, dropping her head and wondering if this knot in the pit of her stomach would ever fade away. She did not want to attend Lord Knightsbridge’s house party. She did not want to have to greet the gentleman again, to smile warmly at him and pretend as though she was nothing more than a distant acquaintance. There was much more to their relationship than Lord Knightsbridge knew and Susanna wondered just how she would manage to behave without any indication of the guilt that continually raged through her. “Good, good,” Lord Tollerton said with a grin. “Now, off with you. Call upon the dressmaker in the village and order yourself one or two new gowns, if you wish.

And the additional fripperies, of course.” He chuckled as she glanced at him askance. “I am quite serious, my dear. Spend as much as you please. I would have you looking your best at this house party!” Susanna nodded and smiled, despite the dark thoughts plaguing her mind. “I shall do so tomorrow, Father,” she told him, and he nodded. “I thank you for your generosity.” “Not at all,” her father beamed, before waving her out of the room. Susanna went willingly, her feet hurrying along the floor as she fought to keep her anxiety under control. Even her own father did not know of her predicament and Susanna could not speak to him of it for fear of what would occur.

It had all begun some time ago, when she had been out wandering in the gardens, near the edge of the grounds. Hurrying up the staircase so that she might escape to the privacy of her bedchamber, Susanna tried hard not to recall that day but the thoughts came to her, nonetheless. She had been caught by a man she did not know or recognize, who had held her arm tightly and, in his other hand, wielded a sharp dagger which had glinted in the light. Her breath had caught and she had tried to scramble back, only for the man to laugh and wave his dagger toward her as she fell to the ground. Ever since then, she had been forced to do as this man, this vagabond, had wanted. Notes would be left for her in the garden arbor, notes that were written in poor English, in a barely legible hand. Sometimes it would take her hours to decipher the few short words that had been written but it was her task to write the note out again, in perfect handwriting, and to send it on to Lord Knightsbridge, without seal or stamp. Most likely, she presumed, those in question wanted to make it appear as though a member of the gentry was behind this scheme, whatever it was, and Susanna had no other choice but to obey. In order to keep herself from being recognized, she would use a boy from the village—a different one every time—to send the letter to the gentleman, doing all she could to hide her identity from him. And thus far, it appeared as though he had no understanding that it was she who sent him these notes.

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