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Ladies of Mischief #1

Devil's Grace

Renn Arelia's Story


by Karen Dean Benson

Ola Wegner

On a mist-covered road bordering the Thames, a careening carriage nearly runs over a young woman escaping a forced betrothal. A nobleman jumps from the carriage and runs to her rescue; two cultures collide, England and Spain. An heirloom locket and an irresistible chemistry are the stepping-stones to destiny.


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Release Date: August 28, 2015
Genre: Historical Romance


Excerpt

Chapter One

Baskets of Sorrow

 

Grief flowed like molten lava inflaming the hell of memory. Renn Arelia Sheridan tossed and turned unable to escape the hot spits of pain. Six weeks ago, a blinding snowstorm ripped her parents from her life. Anguish kept the horror anew.

Reality cemented itself yesterday in the form of very distant relatives, the Duke and Duchess of Chippenham, whom Barrister Haslingdon notified of the profound disaster.

There was never a whisper of the Chippenhams and their London estate, Armitage Hall. Her mother’s distant relatives showed proof of entailment though she already knew daughters did not inherit. Like crows scavenging, they swept across the threshold of her modest home, Sheridan Manor. Liveried servants wreaked chaos as they took over the kitchen and spread new linen on the beds.

Pummeling the pillow, slender arms twined about her legs cocoon style hoping to quiet the creep of dread. With all her tossing, she had long since lost her nightcap. The thick braid of a reddish-brown shade curled along her back. She snorted in disgust at her inability to calm herself. There was no question the veracity of the duke’s claim on her. So, what was it? A sense of dread? Talons of evil reaching out for her?

The latch at her door lifted. Breathless moments passed as a shadow lengthened across the room before she recognized the figure of her elderly nurse.

“Nana, what are you doing up at this hour?” As a toddler, Renn Arelia began calling Mrs. Bridgestone, Nana Bee, a beloved grandmother to them all.

Shush.”

The blonde cocker spaniel, Pansy, asleep on the rug, whapped her tail in greeting.

Nana Bee shut the door silently. Crossing the room, she settled her candle on the nightstand, and sat on the edge of the bed. “We’re to say a private goodbye, my dear girl.”

“Never!”

Nana Bee’s lavender scented hand cupped Renn Arelia’s mouth. “Shhh. I’ve things to say.”

A muffled what sluiced between Nana Bee’s fingers.

“I never dreamt we’d be parted.” Nana Bee took her hand away. “Shhh now.”

Embers from the hearth and the candle flickered shadows through the chamber. Renn Arelia could barely see Nana Bee’s soft, beautiful face.

She sat up. “What more could possibly happen?”

“I’ve been ordered to leave at dawn. I do not know when we will see each other again. But, mark my words, this isn’t goodbye.”

Renn Arelia hugged Nana Bee and buried her face in the warm skin of her neck. “They don’t have authority here. I won’t let you go.”

“For now, I must.”

“Where will you stay?”

“Temporarily at the Cock’s Crow until I figure out something more permanent.”

“This is unbelievable.” Her hand slid to Nana’s shoulder. “Do you have funds?”

A soft chuckle erupted from Nana. “Always thinking of others, aren’t you.” She drew a pouch from her gown and laid it next to the candle. “We’re to share a small amount of coin your mother laid aside. I’ve split it between us.”

“Take it all.”

Nana gently shook her. “Listen to me. I do not know what will become of you. They wouldn’t answer any of my questions regarding your future.” She nodded at the pouch. “You take that and keep it to yourself. Do you understand?”

The deep sorrow Renn Arelia felt these past weeks embedded like a hawk’s talons in her heart. Unforgiveable losses and changes began that day the stable-master, Raymond, walked into the kitchen where she and Nana were preparing their Epiphany Feast. Her parents had been delivering baskets of food to all the families who worked their horse-breeding stables. Snow and icy sleet caused their carriage to tumble into the river. The horses had not survived and her parents drowned.

Nana Bee went on. “Even if your father had left a testament it wouldn’t matter. With freeholders, wives and daughters do not inherit. Your father’s land goes to the duke. Had I known what I know now, I would not have written to Barrister Haslingdon of your parents’ fatality. We’d have figured an alternative.”

Renn Arelia drew back from Nana Bee. “We’ll go together. I’ll get dressed.” She started to pull back the covers when Nana Bee stopped her.

“Darling girl, listen to me.”

“I must go with you. I can’t lose you, too.” Her fingers pressed into Nana’s sturdy shoulders. Nana Bee was shorter than Renn Arelia's five foot five inches. Moreover, at fifty years of age, her stamina had weakened. If Nana Bee was leaving, she certainly was not going alone.

Nana Bee thrust a hard metal object into her hand. “Hide this. I might be wrong, but I think it’s what their servants have been searching for.” Folding Renn Arelia’s fingers about the object, she said, “It was your mother’s.”

Renn Arelia rubbed a finger over the uneven surface. “A brooch?”

“A locket,” Nana Bee whispered. “A precious keepsake.” Her breath warmed Renn Arelia’s cheek. “I caution you to let no one be the wiser. Your mother is a direct descendent through her maternal line to the Chippenham Duchy. Her grandmother, Mary, married a commoner and lost title and privilege at that time.”

Nana Bee squeezed Renn Arelia’s hand and continued. “Your mother always believed Mary’s mother gave her this locket as a hedge against poverty when Mary married. A dowry if you will. Over the years, word of mouth passed the story down. Moreover, it’s been hidden. Your mother intended giving this to you in April. A special celebration for your eighteenth birthday.” Nana Bee kissed her cheek and pressed her hand over Renn Arelia’s fist. “Take care, darling. I’m certain that pair down the hall will take it from you if they discover you have it.”

“Nothing matters but you,” Renn Arelia whispered. “You and me.”

“I’m sure I’m being watched. We’ve only a few moments.” She ran her hand over Renn Arelia’s length of braid. “You must remain here. This is your home. Moreover, you cannot leave your school. The children depend upon you.”

“None of it matters anymore.” A sob broke from her. “How will I live without you?”

“You’re stronger than you know. We’ll be together again, darling.” Nana Bee hugged her tight. “Be strong, pray, and guard the locket.” She placed a tiny chest on the table. “Your mother kept it in this.”

Renn Arelia watched the loving shadow fade. The door closed and a few seconds of candle light ebbed. Humiliation at the hands of the duke and duchess had long since ceased to bring tears. Their shameless entry into her life, digging and probing in her father’s desk, her mother’s trunk.

A snort from Pansy returned her to the moment. She opened the precious little coffer and placed the locket inside. Then she tucked it beneath the covers.

Life in London is as foreign as is the aristocracy. Born in the north, on her father’s farm was what she knew. With no consideration for her, the duke and duchess and their regal authority and papers, pushed her life aside. Her mind swirled with possibility. She could not imagine they intended taking up residence here. Dismissing Nana Bee seemed an inconceivable thoughtlessness. If they ousted Renn Arelia as well, perhaps she would lodge with the vicar. The rectory was close to her school.

What their interest was in Sheridan Manor and she, the only child of Margaret and Walter Sheridan, remained obscure. Could Nana Bee be right? Did they seek this precious gift from her mother? Her fingers tightened about the chest.

 

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