Please note, this is an adult book. Content warnings can be found here.

The next day I woke feeling like crap. That probably had something to do with the home brewed elderberry wine I’d used to drown my sorrows at the night’s failure. 

Sickness lurking at the back of my tongue, I dug in the vegetable beds, sowing seeds, coating my hands in mud like no “lady” should. Across the path, old roses watched, their thorns pricking me with my failures even from this distance.

Last night, I’d lurked on the forest’s fringes, holding out for another carriage taking partygoers home. When dawn’s pallor touched the sky, I had to accept I’d missed my chance. 

Damn fox. I drove my trowel into the soil, sending up a spray of crumbly dirt.

In the sunlight, it felt utterly stupid that I’d even entertained the idea of the creature being anything more than an animal trapped in a snare. Fae weren’t so stupid to get themselves caught. And save for the retinue that had presented itself to the queen recently, they hadn’t been seen in Albion since before I was born. 

It was just a fox. And I’d let the waning moon and promise of the Wild Hunt whip my mind into a foolish frenzy that saw strangeness and danger where there were none. 

“Idiot,” I muttered as I dropped seeds into the loosened soil. 

Cursing that fox and myself, I worked past noon sowing, weeding, thinning out seedlings, and hunting slugs and snails. Since we’d been forced to slaughter the ducks last winter, it was my job to find the slimy bastards beneath stones and behind plant pots and squash them. 

If the choice was between a slug and my vegetables, I chose my vegetables every time. 

Just like I should’ve chosen my prey last night instead of that fox. 

With a sigh, I finally went inside the third time the cook, Morag, called me from the kitchen door. 

My head was about ready to explode and the heat kicked out by the oven didn’t help. I slid into a rickety chair with a groan, depositing the radishes and salad leaves I’d harvested between my slug-murdering. 

“Suppose you haven’t eaten yet.” 

I didn’t need to look up to know Morag was giving me That Look. The one where her lips were flat and her brow low—all disapproval and hard love. I’d learned to read people long ago. It was a useful skill—a survival skill with a family like mine. 

“Felt too sick first thing,” I muttered, shoving hair from my face where it had fallen loose while I worked. 

“And I wonder why that is.” I could hear the arched eyebrow in her tone. “Get this down you.” She plonked a chipped mug on the table, the fresh scent of peppermint rising in its steam. 

The smell didn’t turn my stomach; I chanced a sip. It beat away the sick taste on the back of my tongue, so I kept drinking while she waved her rolling pin at me, eyes glinting. 

“Look at the state of your hair. When was the last time you brushed it?”

I couldn’t even summon the energy to wince. Although I hadn’t looked in a mirror in… Gods, how long had it been? 

“My hair doesn’t matter.” 

“You need to look after yourself.” She shook her head, tutting. “Out all night.” Her look was meaningful, and I knew she knew what I did when I disappeared on Vespera, even if I never told her outright. “Then drinking that rubbish past dawn.” 

“I will.” I tilted the cup as I shrugged. “Just as soon as the cabbage is harvested, the beds all weeded, the courgettes planted out, the hen house repaired, the gate re-hung, that hole in the back fence patched up… And I’m sure there’s something else I’m forgetting. Then there’ll be time to look after myself.” 

That Look made a return, but the lines between her brows were deeper and the shadows cast on her eyes darker. “And what if it’s too late?” 

Too late? I snorted. “I’ll survive.”

With a huff, Morag turned and stomped to the oven. Steam billowed out, carrying a sweet scent that had my mouth watering at once, all queasiness forgotten. 

I frowned at her, even as I smacked my lips. “You didn’t.” 

“I did.” The little cake tins clashed against the tray as it thudded into the cork mat on the table.

The floral notes of honey in the air pulled a soft sound from my throat, but I clenched my hands. “We’re supposed to be selling the honey, not eating it.” My stomach growled, though, and my fatal weakness for sweet treats had me leaning over the table, inhaling as deeply as I could. Good gods, they smelled amazing. It had been so many months since I’d eaten anything so tasty, I could’ve wept with longing. 

“Aye, well, I only used a tablespoon. The rest is in jars for selling.” Her mouth softened as she looked at me, hands on her hips. “Treating yourself isn’t a sin, you know.” 

Maybe it was that softness, maybe it was my weakness for the scent of fresh honey cakes, but part of me cracked as I looked back at her. I had to hold my breath and wait for the stinging in my eyes to fade.

Because I was tired.

So. Fucking. Tired. 

Maybe that had made me prickly, not to mention ungrateful. So I sat up and nodded at Morag as she tipped one of the cakes from its tin onto a cooling rack. “Thank you.” 

At last she smiled, the hard glint gone from her eyes. “That’s my girl.” 

When I reached for a cake, she swatted my hand. “Let them cool down first!” 

I scoffed, rising and darting for the cooling rack before she could swat me off again. The sponge was hot and moist, perhaps too hot, but… “No time for that. Work to do.” 

As I backed away, she folded her arms and shook her head, That Look firmly back in place.

Standing in the doorway, I took a bite of the honey cake and sighed. Morag had lived and worked here since she was a girl. It was the only home she knew. Lucky for me, because she was good enough to work in any stately home she wanted. Yet she remained here in this crumbling manor where I could barely afford to keep up her wages. Selfish as it may be, I was intensely grateful as the cake’s sweetness bloomed across my tongue. 

Floral honey and the rich caramel flavour of brown sugar consumed me. 

I sank into it. Lost myself in it. Just for a moment. Just that one spark of pleasure that eased my shoulders for a handful of seconds. Glorious and brief and, most importantly, mine.

I opened my mouth to take a second bite when a pounding came from the front doors. 

Morag tensed, head canted in a question, eyebrows twitching together in something that was part-confusion and part-concern.

“Looks like you get your way and I have to let it cool down.” I grinned and deposited the rest of my precious cake on the cooling rack as I left the room.

Who the hells came to Markyate Cell? The once great estate had hosted balls and parties before I’d lived here. But it was a long time since we’d been able to afford to feed anyone outside the household. Recently, it had been challenging enough to feed the three of us.

I was untying my apron when the hammering knock sounded again, echoing through the empty halls. Not only a visitor, an impatient one.

Oh no. A chill crept over me. Not that prick’s secretary again. 

Some called my husband Lord Robin Fanshawe, but I preferred other, more inventive names. I hadn’t seen the man in years, which suited me very well. I only heard from him when he needed money, which took the form of an invoice sent directly to the house from a landlord or tailor. Or, when I was really unlucky, when his secretary came to help himself to the contents of the safe on behalf of his master. 

Such a loyal dog. 

Jaw ratcheting tighter and tighter, I opened the large front door. “Mr Smythe, you’re going to have to tell—”

The words withered on my tongue. 

Because it wasn’t the gangly secretary at the door.

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