The Secrets of Mia Danvers Excerpt
Taken from chapter one…
London, the Eighth of May, 1889
When she’d first moved into the cottage at the back of Lord Carrington’s estate, Mia Danvers had been told she could cut through the garden area to get to and from her home. She’d never done that though, always preferring to walk along the stone wall that surrounded the property. Nearly every day for the past nine years, she’d walked beside the wall, trailing her fingers across cobbled surface, letting the familiar stones guide her home. Today though she desperately wished she’d taken the route through the duke’s yard.
She sucked in her breath and tried to disappear into the shrubbery that sat between the wall and the alleyway. The cold stones behind her pressed into her back, chilling her skin beneath her heavy wool gown. Frigid rain dropped in slow rhythmic beats against her face and she forced her teeth to cease their chattering.
Not far from Mia’s hiding place, a girl whimpered on the alleyway. And beside that girl, a man chuckled, a gravelly deep laugh that raised the hairs on Mia’s arms.
“Please don’t hurt me,” the girl begged.
He whispered something, but Mia could not make out his words.
“No,” the girl whispered in return.
Mia tried to move, but found her arms and legs would not obey. She wanted to call out, do something, anything to save the girl from the man’s brutality, but fear pinned her in place. She squeezed her eyes shut knowing that wouldn’t change anything. Eyes open or shut, it mattered not, she could not see either way.
But the rest of her worked perfectly. So perfectly that she could clearly hear every terrified exhale coming from the girl, smell the man’s cologne and the alcohol on his breath as it mixed with the icy rain. Feel the cold and the wet and the fear. She told her feet to move, wanting so badly to flee, but her muscles would not budge.
The rain intensified, coming down in angry slashes. Mia pressed her back hard into the stones behind her. Scared, ashamed and frozen in her hiding place.
“Please, no,” the girl’s voice raised to a fevered pitch.
“Open your eyes.” The man’s whisper was angry now and void of the harsh humor it had held before. “Let me see the fear.” His voice was coming out in raspy hisses.
Mia lost track of how long she stood there. The rain had soaked through her wool dress to her underthings below. Her hair was matted to her head and gooseflesh covered her body. Still she could not move. She wanted to yell at the man to stop his attack. But she couldn’t find her voice.
Fabric tore and the girl’s protests softened to weeping and Mia could only assume he’d ripped the girl’s dress apart.
“Oh God no, please no,” the girl‘s voice was raspy with fear. “Please don’t cut me.”
“Cry,” the man said. “Beg me not to kill you.”
Mia tried to move forward, unsure of what she would do, just that she must try to stop him, but her dress snagged against the shrubs. She was pinned in place.
“Please, please.” The girl’s cries softened to whimpers and then a guttural sound followed by a horrid gurgle.
Mia knew it was the sound of a knife as it slashed through the girl’s flesh. Again and again.
He cut through the girl’s dress; Mia could hear the worn material give beneath the blade. And again the knife sliced into her skin, cracking against bone and making a vulgar sucking sound as it moved in and out of the poor girl’s body.
What was he doing? Had he seen her hiding against the wall? She thought she was well concealed behind the thick shrubs, but perhaps not. Oh God. She held her breath, trying not to make even the slightest of sounds. Concentrating on the quiet, she strained to hear. Anything. But there was only quiet.
A moment later, he spat again, and said something vulgar. Then he took several steps, back in the direction of the way he’d come. Moving away from the body of the girl who had long since stopped crying. Stopped moving. Stopped breathing.
His footsteps came closer to Mia’s hiding place, getting louder with each movement, splashing into the potted holes of rain on the alley. She grabbed handfuls of her skirt, squeezed tightly. A match struck and then he took a long drag on a cigarette. The acrid smell of blood and tobacco merged and filled her nose. And something else, something she couldn’t put a name to, his smell. She flinched and prayed he’d walk faster.
He stopped walking, took another long drag on his cigarette. Then he walked away. Whistling.
Mia stood there until she could no longer hear his footsteps. Then she waited some more, long enough for the rain to slow to a trickle. She clenched her teeth to keep them from chattering and knew she could not stay in the bushes forever. She might have been warned from going to the duke’s estate, but tonight there would be an exception because Lord Carrington needed to know what had happened on his property.
She yanked at her skirts where the shrub held her in place and heard the fabric give way. Swiftly she moved away from the shrubs, being careful to stay on the grass, to avoid the stone path where the girl’s body lay. She took a few steps to ensure her feet were steady, her legs not too weak, and then she took off in a dead run. The grass was slick beneath her worn slippers and her toes burned from the cold, but she would not let herself stop. It mattered not that the stone tore at her fingers as her hand slid against the wall, ensuring her she was going in the right direction.
Her ragged breath and the ground crunching beneath her feet were the only sounds. Still she ran. It wouldn’t be too much longer before she rounded the corner of the wall and entered the front lawn of Lord Carrington’s London estate.
A carriage rolled down the street. Mia’s heart pounded, the sound reverberating in her ears. Footsteps behind her. Her foot slipped.
She would not stop, could not stop, moving forward.
Alex Foster, eighth Duke of Carrington sat in his newly acquired study and glanced at the desk littered with mail from the last few months. Technically he was still in mourning after his eldest brother, and the seventh Duke of Carrington, got himself killed during an illegal duel. Alex had scarcely had time to do little else other than bury his brother and try to quiet down the scandal that had surrounded his death.
What kind of damned fool had an affair with the wife of a Marquess, then challenged said Marquess to a duel, and promptly lost said duel? Stephen had been a fool of the first order.
As duke, Alex had new priorities in life. As a retired military officer he’d been inclined to a quiet life with some books and a position with the state department. Now he was getting acquainted as a lord in Parliament. And he had a task that was quite tedious; securing a wife. A duke needed his duchess. Luckily the mourning was affording him to move more slowly on the wife hunting.
It was something Stephen had failed to do so there had been no other heir but Alex. Alex had been to more soirees and balls in the last two months than he had at any other time of his life. He found bride shopping, as it were, to be incredibly frustrating, especially since his parents had already pre-selected someone to be the new duchess.
But his mother and the girls’ parents had wanted to keep up appearances, make it look as if he were introducing himself as a bachelor, when in reality they all knew eventually he’d propose to Juliet Beckinsale. She’d been groomed to be his wife. Well, the wife of the Duke of Carrington.
“Your Grace, I am sorry to disturb you, but there is a woman here to see you.”
Alex Foster looked up from his book and eyed the butler standing in his study doorway. Rain pattered against the windows and lightening momentarily flashed through the room. “In this weather?”
“I’m afraid so. I tried to dismiss her, but it seems she won’t be dissuaded.”
“Very well, but don’t go far, you’ll be seeing her out again in but a moment.” Alex stood and waited for Hodges to withdraw, and then return.
Behind the butler came a tall and lithe and very wet creature. She was not familiar to Alex, yet he sensed he should know who she was. As if at some point they had met.
He waited for her to speak, but she did not. Instead she stayed precisely where she was and seemed to stare right at him.
“Madam, what is it that you think I can assist you with? I do not like being disturbed this late in the evening. Nor do I appreciate you soaking everything in your wake.”
She blinked and took a few shuffling steps forward. “My Lord, my name is Mia Danvers, I live in the cottage at the edge of your estate.”
“My God.” He’d never met her before, at least he did not remember if he had, but she’d lived on their property for nearly eight years. An agreement between his late father and her parents, an agreement that had been written into his father’s will. Alex remembered his mother saying once that the poor girl was mad. But up until now they’d never had any trouble with her. In fact, she’d kept to her own and out of sight, so Alex had never questioned her living arrangement. He studied her now, taking in the frantic, almost crazed, expression on her face. It might be time to reexamine the situation, search for a way around his father’s odd demand.
“Miss Danvers, what are you doing away from your cottage?” he asked, voice firm and authoritative. She needed to know this sort of behavior would not be tolerated, regardless of what his father had agreed to.
She craned her neck awkwardly to the right, then moved in that direction, heading straight for the fire crackling in the hearth. But she ran right into a chair. With her hands she felt around the piece of furniture, moving around it as she did until she stood directly in front of the fire. She silently warmed herself for several moments before she spoke.
“I witnessed a murder tonight. On your property.”
He inhaled sharply at her admission, but before shock could take hold of him, he considered the source. Her pale skin was sharp contrast to her dark, wet hair that was pulled severely away from her face in a tight bun. No fashionable curls framed her face or hung delicately at her neck. Her dress was devoid of all fashion as well. Instead she wore a dark brown wool frock that hung loosely against her thin frame.
She turned her face towards him and it was then that he understood, for while she looked in his direction, she did not meet his eyes. Her painfully beautiful blue eyes stared sightlessly at the bookshelf behind him.
“Unless I am mistaken it is impossible that you could have witnessed a crime, Madam.” He took several steps so that he stood next to her. With his right hand, he waved in front of her face.
Long, delicate fingers grabbed his wrist. “It is true that I am blind, sir, but the rest of my faculties work properly, I can assure you.”
She released his hand. “Could you be so kind as to offer me some tea?” she asked. “I’m afraid I lost my dinner on your front lawn and am still feeling rather shaky.”
She was not going to go away, of that he could be certain. She might be mad, but she was also persistent. He exhaled loudly, but rang for a tea service nonetheless. “Now that your tea is on the way, might you proceed with your story. You may sit if you are more comfortable doing so. Though I would prefer if you do that you select the wooden chair so you do not ruin the imported leather.”
“I’ll stand, thank you.” She faced the fire and he noted her skin began to take on a warmer tone. She was still impossibly fair, but looked less pallid now. “Normally I am in my cottage long before dark, but tonight I was on errand on Bond Street and got delayed. I was walking home, along the stone wall that borders the property.”
At that moment Hodges brought in the tea and set the tray down on the side table. Alex waited until the man had retreated before he said anything. “You were walking alone?”
“Rachel takes one evening off a month to go and visit her aunt. Otherwise she would have been with me,” she said. “Normally during her visits away I simply stay at the cottage, but there were two new pieces in the statuary garden and then temptation was too great for me to wait. So I went. It was only when I heard the low hiss of the gas lights that I knew it had fallen dark.”
Alex nodded, then remembered the woman could not see him. “Go on.”
He watched as she methodically found her way around the tea service, then poured her tea, adding precisely one lump of sugar and enough cream to color the liquid a warm brown. She took a sip, then clutched the cup close to her chest before dragging in a ragged breath. Her hands shook as she held the teacup, Alex was unsure if it was from her nerves of the cold.
“I heard footsteps in the distance and I moved in closer to the stone wall, putting myself between it and the shrubberies. I could tell whoever had been behind me was struggling. It was a woman and then I heard the man. I froze.”
Her sightless eyes widened as if she’d seen something terrifying in the flames.
She continued and began to explain how she’d stayed hidden and proceeded to hear the man murder the girl. Alex watched Mia’s movements; they were small and controlled, a gentle lifting of the teacup to her lips and a delicate swallow, then a brittle blinking of her eyes. She was beautiful in a fragile sort of way, much like the delicate cup in her hand.
But he knew every word out of her mouth was imagined. Somehow in her broken world she’d conjured this terrible happening and now she was here standing in his study, dripping on his fine Persian rug and staring into his fire as she regaled him with her tale.
A murder? In Mayfair? It was madness, nothing more. And he would allow her to finish, then he would send her on her way and hope his acceptance of her story would pacify her.
One shiny tear escaped from her right eye and rolled down her now pinkened cheek. “I just stood there. I couldn’t move, my dress had caught on the shrubs. And I couldn’t call out.” Her head shook. “I was immobilized by my own fear and now that poor girl is dead.”
“What is it that you would have me do?” he asked, unmoved by her show of emotion.
“I cannot very well go to the authorities. They would think me mad,” she said.
At that she earned a tight laugh. “Indeed.”
“Go out there.” She turned to face him. “Find her body and make certain her family is notified. Then I can help you find who killed her.”
“Miss Danvers, I am not with the police, in case that has missed your astute observation. I am a duke. I am not in the business of tracking down killers.”
“But this was on your property, sir. It must be your duty to address such a crime. You can not ignore it.”
“I will investigate matters. But suffice it to say that if there is a crime to be solved, we shall leave that to the fine gentleman at Scotland Yard.”
Her hand reached out and grabbed onto his arm. “Thank you. If you establish the meeting I will gladly speak with the inspectors. With your support then they will be more likely to believe my account. I want to do whatever I can to bring justice to that poor girl.”
There was such earnestness in her features he found himself wanting to agree. But, of course, that would be impossible, he could not risk his family name by aligning himself with such a woman. “Let us see how things play out. I’ll have a footman walk you home.”
She nodded, then set down her teacup perfectly on the awaiting saucer.
Copyright © 2013. Robyn DeHart. All Rights Reserved.