The Postilion – S. M. LaViolette

Benedicta Elizabeth Norah Winslow de Montfort, tenth Duchess of Wake, tiptoed quietly—as quietly as it was possible to do wearing top boots—toward the servant staircase. The house was silent except for the settling of ancient timbers, as it should be at three in the morning. The only occupants—other than servants—were Benna’s cousin Michael and his loathsome friend, Viscount Fenwick. Life had changed drastically in the two weeks since her brother David’s death. Not only did she miss David—although she had seen little enough of him in the three years since he’d inherited the title—but her happy, predictable routine had been smashed to flinders thanks to the arrival of her cousin and now legal guardian, Michael de Montfort, the Earl of Norland. Michael had taken control of Wake House a scant two weeks ago but already his changes were profound—not to mention unwelcome. He’d begun replacing servants with people he’d brought from his estate in Northumberland. Not just footmen and grooms, but old family retainers like Mrs. Hotchkiss, the housekeeper, and Clavering, the butler. Benna scarcely saw a familiar face as she walked the house and grounds. And now, ominously, Michael was making noises about replacing Old Tom, the stablemaster—a man who’d been more like a fond uncle to Benna than a servant. Tom had grown up on the estate and had once run barefoot and wild with Benna’s own father when the duke had been a lad. To think of Tom not being part of her life was simply unbearable. The other change Michael had imposed had to do with Benna, herself. Ever since Benna could remember she’d been left to her own devices.

And she liked it that way. When it came to her doting father, Benna had needed to exert minimal effort to twist him around her finger. While the duke might have wished that the only daughter of his beloved wife had resembled that deceased beauty more than his own pale, tall, gangly person, he’d never made Benna feel that she was a disappointment to him. Because horses had been the duke’s only passion after the death of his wife, he found nothing amiss in Benna’s desire to spend more time in the stables than in the schoolroom. Since the age of twelve—after Benna had saved her father’s favorite hunter by prudently and competently fomenting the poor beast’s injured hock—the duke had all but put her in charge of the stables during his frequent absences from Wake House. David, who’d inherited the unenviable task of running herd on Benna after their father’s death, had not been nearly as sanguine about her breeches, string of fifteen slapping hunters, or the fact that her closest—nay, her only—companion was Wake House’s crusty old stable master, Tom Barnum. “Father gave you your head for far too long and now you are unmanageable, Benna,” David had shouted that last time he’d come home to visit, only three months before he’d died in a freak accident hunting with the Quorn. “I warn you, Benna, I won’t be ruled by your tantrums like Papa was. You had better prepare to find yourself a husband next year in London, my girl, because I shan’t have you haunting the stables in your ridiculous garb and behaving like another one of my grooms after I am married.” David’s betrothed.

Lady Louisa—a so-called diamond of the first water—was a woman Benna had never met. When Benna had asked when she would meet the nonpareil, her brother’s answer had crushed her. “I’m too embarrassed to bring her for a visit and expose her to your hoydenish behavior. You’ve run wild for a long time, Benna, but I shall break you to bridle by the time I bring my wife home.” Even at the time Benna had deeply regretted throwing the porcelain statuette at his head. Not because she had liked the gruesome thing—a maudlin rendering of a goose girl with her adoring gaggle—but because that blazing row was the last memory she had of David. Now he was gone, and she was the head of their ever-shrinking family. Thanks to an ancient and unusual remainder in the Wake dukedom’s royal patent, Benna had inherited the title of duchess from her brother, although all the subsidiary titles had passed to her cousin Michael, Benna’s heir presumptive in addition to being her guardian. It took less than a week of daily exposure to Michael’s reign to discover that he was not put off by either her temper or her stubbornness. They’d first locked horns the day after David’s funeral, when Benna had burst into her cousin’s study—which should have been her study after her brother’s death—and demanded to see a copy of David’s will.

As a minor, Benna had been excluded from attending the formal reading, which had taken place with only Michael and David’s new solicitor in attendance. Why her brother had sacked the solicitors their father and grandfather had used—the London firm of Norris and Ridgewick—Benna did not know. Michael had smirked, visibly amused by her demand. “You’re not entitled to anything, my dear child, but I will kindly—this once—appease your curiosity and allow you to look at your brother’s will.” Benna was still horrified by what she’d read. The terms of the trust—the corpus of which would only be available to her on her twenty-fifth birthday—had not surprised her since her father had been the one to establish it. But why, in the name of God David—her legal guardian after her father’s death—had chosen Michael for that role, she would never know. Her brother had known how much Benna despised their arrogant, far-too-domineering cousin, and yet he’d granted Michael total authority over her person and future. The morning after that first clash with Michael Benna had gone down to the stables early, as was her practice, intending to put her new hunter through its paces. She’d arrived to find Michael’s loathsome servant Diggle blocking the entrance to the horse stalls.

“’Is lordship wants to see you, sharpish.” Benna had been thunderstruck; never had a servant looked at her so insolently or spoken so disrespectfully. “You will address me with respect in my own home, or you may pack your belongings and be gone.” Diggle had only laughed. And when Benna had tried to push past him, he’d grabbed her upper arm with a hand as big as the huge bronze sundial in the parterre garden. “I’m to bring ye.” Then the brute had dragged her all the way back to the study, where Michael had the audacity to make her stand on the carpet in front of his desk—like a recalcitrant child—while he’d laid down what he called the new law. No more spending her days in the stables, no more wearing breeches, no more hunting, and absolutely no riding without one of his grooms in attendance. “Lastly,” he’d said, with a hateful smirk, “at least for now, if you wish to go for a ride, you will do so wearing a proper habit. I am arranging for a dressmaker to come out and fit you for appropriate clothing.

” Benna had looked right into Michael’s eyes and enunciated, “Go. Straight. To. Hell.” She’d then marched back to the stables and gone about her usual routine. The next day, when she’d gone to ride, she discovered that Spitfire, her new gelding, was missing. Benna had found her cousin in the breakfast room, along with Viscount Fenwick. “Tom says you sold Spitfire?” Michael had winced. “There is no need to shout.” “There is every need,” she’d shouted again.

“Those horses are my property.” “I’m afraid not, my dear. Or do you need to peruse the document granting me power over you and every item on this property?” “Why are you doing this?” Benna had been ashamed of the pleading note that had crept into her voice. “I will sell a horse each time you disobey me,” he’d said in a cool, superior tone that had stoked the rage burning inside her. “If I were you, dear cousin,” he’d added, his gaze on her hand, which was moving toward a crystal vase on the nearby console table, “I would not get any ideas about hurling that at my head.” Benna had snatched back her hand, almost chewing out her own tongue trying to keep it behind her teeth. As she’d flung herself out of the room, she’d heard her cousin and Fenwick chortling behind her. Michael had sold off seven of her hunters in only two weeks. Finally, Benna had stopped riding in the mornings—she refused to go with any of Michael’s despicable grooms accompanying her—but she’d found a way around the embargo by sneaking out at night. That pleasure, however, would be taken from her as the moon waned.

Terrified that she might lose the rest of her horses, she now grudgingly spent the daylight hours wearing a putrid dress, dining with her cousin and his vile friend, and studying under the tutelage of a prosy curate that Michael brought with him from Northumberland. A sudden snatch of conversation jolted her from her furious musing, “—good God, Norland, you can’t be serious!” Benna recognized the slurred voice as belonging to Viscount Fenwick. She froze on the second-floor landing. “Christ, Fenwick.” Michael sounded so loud that Benna assumed the men must be on the other side of the panel that served as a hidden door to the servant stairs. “If you don’t keep your bloody voice down, they’ll be able to hear you in London.” “How old is the chit, anyway?” Fenwick asked, his voice already becoming dim as their footsteps moved past. “She’ll be seventeen in a few weeks.” “That’s a bit young, isn’t it? Don’t you think the trustees will—” Benna mashed her ear against the wood, but all she could hear was a distant murmur, and then the closing of a door. They must have retired to the library.

And they had been talking about her. Benna chewed her lip and stood staring blankly at the candlestick in her hand. Go to your room, the voice of reason ordered. She knew she should listen. But, instead, she opened the door a crack, made sure there was nobody loitering—like the odious Diggle—and sped down the wide corridor to the section of hallway that was three panels away from the double doors to the library. Benna located the small catch easily and opened the door to the narrow corridor that ran alongside the library, leading to one of the bigger priest holes in a house that was littered with them. The servants knew about this hideaway, of course, but nobody else knew the real secret of the room: that it was actually a double hole, two secret rooms, one behind the other. The main priest hole was large enough to have a cot, chair, and table. At the back of the room was a section of paneling that swung up when shoved at the bottom. By turning sideways, she could ease her body into the second room, which was far smaller than the first, barely a cupboard with a single chair.

Benna had discovered the second room completely by accident. As a girl, she’d enjoyed spending time in the cozy room and had once accidentally dropped the book she’d been reading. When she bent down to get it, she’d leaned against the panel. That had been years ago, and she’d never seen any sign of use in the room and hadn’t told even her brother of its existence. Benna left her candle in the outer priest hole and felt her way by touch into the inner sanctum. On the wall was a raised piece of wood that covered a peep. Benna slid the wood aside slowly. “—yes, of course I know that, old man.” Fenwick’s voice was so loud it sounded like he’d stepped into the priest’s hole with her. “What I still don’t understand is how you talked poor old David into putting the girl—along with everything else—into your hands.

” He gave a raucous chuckle. “Fairly reeks of the Princes in the Tower, don’t it? I daresay David’s old windsuckers would have had something to say about appointing you guardian if you hadn’t convinced David to give them the sack and hire your man. Too bad about the trust though, eh?” he taunted. Benna frowned. What did he mean, too bad about the trust? Too bad about it, how? Fenwick was in a chair not far from the mantelpiece, the back of his head to her. The peep was tucked within an especially elaborate piece of scrolling. Michael sat directly across from him. “You don’t need to know about any of that, dear Dickie,” her cousin said, his gaze fixed on something Benna could not see, his handsome face wearing a cold, pitiless expression that made her shiver. “All I want from you is to stand witness to the affair.” “You know me, old chap, always glad to help out a friend in need.

” Michael’s full lips twisted into a mocking smile and he turned until he was staring at his friend, and therefore looking directly at the peep. “Your helpfulness is one of the characteristics I like most about you, Fenwick.” Even though she couldn’t see the viscount’s face, she could tell by the way his shoulders stiffened that he didn’t care for the other man’s innuendo. “You needn’t come the ugly with me, Norland. I’d help whether or not you knew about the other thing.” “To be sure, Dickie, old chap,” he soothed. “I did not mean to cast aspersions. By the by, how goes that business—the other thing, as you so quaintly call it? Is it still as lucrative as it was when your dear, departed brother was, er, extorting money for God and country?” “It’s not me we’re here to talk about,” Fenwick snapped. “When do you want me back here?” “Oh, I shall be ready for you before you leave, my good man.” Michael raised a glass and took a sip.

“It turns out that dear Benna’s way of going on has quite played into my hands. The last time she went anywhere was with my uncle when she was barely a girl. Nobody else in our family has seen her in years. The people in town see her, of course, but all they see is a tall, skinny, towheaded woman. None of them would be able to describe her more fully that that. She has no friends and has shocked and alienated all the local mamas by dressing and behaving like a man. Best of all, rumors abound about her infamous temper tantrums with her brother. I’ve already got five witnesses willing to swear she’s become even more volatile and unstable since David’s passing.” One side of his mouth pulled up. “Thanks to my cousin David’s ironclad will, Norris and Ridgewick will be at point non plus if they dare to challenge me.

They may have their hooks in the trust, but my little cousin is all mine.” Benna let out a shaky breath and forced herself to inhale, her body trembling. Michael smirked and sipped his brandy. “I’ve been seeding word of her instability for over a year now. By the time the marriage is known I shall be viewed as the hero of the matter—sacrificing myself for the future of the de Montfort family. And then once dear little Benna has been persuaded to —” Fenwick snorted. “Not so little. She might be a bean pole but she’s almost as tall as you, Norland. How will you take care of her when you’re done?” he asked, his tone sly. “The one thing everyone in these parts agrees on is that she’s a spanking rider—far better than poor David.

It won’t be so easy to arrange for her to take a convenient fall.” Benna bit her lower lip in time to hold in a gasp. Michael’s mouth tightened, his eyes glinting dangerously. “You had better learn to mind your tongue, Fenwick. I shouldn’t want somebody to cut it out for you.” For a long moment the only sound in the room was the crackling of the fire. Michael pinned Fenwick with cold blue eyes. What the viscount was looking at, Benna had no clue. It was Fenwick who broke the silence. “I still don’t see how you’re going to get her up to scratch.

A right willful baggage from what I’ve seen.” “Benna has been too long indulged, first by her father, and then by David.” Michael’s features tightened until his handsome face was a cruel mask. “Never fear, my dear Fenwick. I shall bring her to heel with very little effort. Besides, it will hardly matter what she says or does.” Fenwick chuckled. “You’ve got a parson in your pocket?” Michael cocked his head at his so-called friend, his expression anything but friendly. “So curious you are about my affairs, dear Dickie. But I believe you don’t need all the details.

All you need is to be sober enough to stand upright this coming Monday.” Fenwick said nothing, but his white knuckles around the glass told Benna how much he liked being spoken to so contemptuously. “As soon as we are wed my man Diggle shall take Benna to a place where she will be safely— and quietly—kept.” “Oh? Where?” “Never you mind. Suffice it to say that I’ve got somewhere secure I can tuck her away until I need her.” Benna’s breath froze in her lungs. Fenwick chuckled and Benna heard a grudging—but nervous—admiration in the other man’s braying laughter. The viscount raised his glass. “Here’s to you, Norland—a more heartless bastard I hope never to meet.” Benna pushed the wooden cover closed with a shaky hand and slid to the floor.

Good God. She’d always thought Michael was loathsome but she’d not dreamed he’d stoop to murder. Everyone had believed David’s death was an accident. His hunter had been found, dying, near David’s body. Her brother’s head had been crushed by the stone wall he’d apparently been trying to jump. Based on Fenwick’s not very subtle ribbing she now had to wonder; had Michael engineered David’s death?

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