Please note, this is an adult book. Content warnings can be found here.
A man stood on the top step, his charcoal suit smart but not too smart. Some sort of professional—the kind who worked in an office. An attorney, perhaps. But there was something a little rougher about him. Beyond, half a dozen burly men waited on the gravel driveway, arms folded. From their size and casual shirts and brown trousers, I guessed they were labourers.
My throat constricted. Attorneys meant trouble. And burly men meant more trouble. Either the official kind or the kind that hoped to find a woman home alone. I’d sent Horwich on an errand, and Morag was hearty for her age, but I wouldn’t duck behind her for protection.
Home was usually safe—away from society, somewhere I didn’t have to play by its rules. But this? This was decidedly not safe.
I clasped my skirts, wishing my fingers were fastening around the butt of my pistol, but that was upstairs in my bedroom. No way would I outrun these men to reach it.
Politeness was my only protection. My back straightened, and it was shocking how easily I slid back into that old mould—ladylike and poised. “How may I help you?”
“Morning, miss.” The suited man nodded. “We’ve come to execute the warrant. Has Lady Fanshawe…? Sorry, it says Ferrers on here.” He glanced down at a sheaf of papers in his hand. “Has Lady Ferrers left the keys for us?”
“I’m Lady Ferrers.” Yet my brain clamoured with questions. Warrant? Keys?
His eyes went wide and his face grew maybe a shade paler. “Oh. I was…” He gripped the papers with both hands now. “I thought you would’ve vacated the estate by now, milady.”
“Vacated the estate? Why would I do that?”
He shuffled uncomfortably and cleared his throat. “Well, because of the warrant.” He paused and when I didn’t reply, raised his eyebrows. “The one served on Lord Fanshawe three months ago?”
“A warrant for what?”
But I knew. Deep down in the ice creaking through my bones, I knew.
“To seize the estate.”
My breaths were too loud, blocking my ears. Seize the estate. Seize the estate. Seize the estate.
The sentence went round and round in time with the drumming of my heart, a jumble of sounds I couldn’t make sense of.
The man’s mouth was still moving, but I didn’t hear a word.
Seizing. Warrants. No more estate. No more home. Not safe. Not safe at all.
I blinked and found myself clutching the doorframe, the world spinning slowly, sickeningly.
“Milady, are you—?”
“What has he done?”
The bailiff explained. I took in half of what he said; it was enough.
The foetid cesspit I’d been married off to had secured a five-thousand-pound debt against Markyate Cell—the estate I worked myself to the bone to keep afloat. The estate that hadn’t made that much money in any of the years I’d been here.
And, being a useless bag of bones, he’d failed to pay the debt or respond to the warrant he’d been served three months ago.
“Three months.” The words scoured my throat. He’d known all that time, and he hadn’t even sent a letter to warn me.
The bailiff shifted his weight, lips tightening as his fingertips traced the edge of the warrant in his hands. “You knew nothing of this until I appeared on your doorstep, did you?”
I shook my head, though it took far more effort than it should’ve, as if my bones were suddenly heavier and my muscles had forgotten how to work.
He swallowed and glanced down the steps at the men waiting. As though coming to a decision, he leant in closer, shoulders blocking them out. “Look, madam… they don’t like us telling anyone about this, and normally I wouldn’t, but it seems unfair on this occasion. There’s a clause on the final page of the warrant.” He flicked through the papers and held one up, but I couldn’t take in anything more than a jumble of ink. “If you pay one tenth within a week, we’ll accept that as part payment, with another tenth due a month later, and so on, until the debt is cleared. As long as you keep up payments, the estate won’t be seized.”
Five hundred pounds. That was still a huge sum, ten times what I paid Horwich in an entire year.
“I’ll do it.” I heard my voice as if it was from very far away. As if someone else had spoken.
His shoulders sank a fraction of an inch as though he was relieved. Putting the papers back in his briefcase, he promised to return in seven days’ time. He handed me a card with the address of his offices and bowed his head before leaving.
Face tingling, I slammed the door and fell against it.
How the hells was I going to raise that much money in a week?
“A week!” My hysteria-edged voice bounced around the hall.
There was only one way I stood a chance. Despite the danger of being on the road so often, I had to ride every night.
Even that might not be enough.
A whole set of gold jewellery—necklace, earrings, brooch, bracelets—would bring in perhaps two-hundred and fifty. That was without the taint of stolen goods. I’d be lucky to get two thirds of that from my fence if she was in a good mood… a really, really good mood.
My stomach churned as I walked through the halls, no particular destination in mind. There was no space in my brain for anything other than what had just happened.
Five thousand pounds. Five thousand! That was a year’s income, even for a wealthy gentleman.
At last, I stumbled outside and threw up everything I could. The mouthful of honey cake wasn’t sweet coming back up. I could only taste bitter, sour bile as I heaved and heaved, tears gathering at the corners of my eyes from the effort.
When I looked up, the roses still watched.
How I used to love tending them.
Once upon a time, I’d read every book I could on the subject. I bought every different variety and fertiliser I could get my hands on, testing them in different beds to see what gave the best results. I wrote notes on the outcomes. I even started breeding different varieties together, seeing if perhaps I could create something new. But my project ended before they had a chance to flower.
Because I found out the truth about my husband’s debts and the floundering financials of the estate.
What a foolish girl. Such frivolous concerns. It had been an utterly pointless way to spend my time. Roses were pretty and they smelled divine, but they were useless.
Vegetables, though—they were entirely practical. They’d kept us going these past few years.
And with the bailiff breathing down my neck, we would need to grow and hunt all our food for the foreseeable future.
Before I even consciously thought about it, I was approaching the nearest rose bed. The soil crumbled under my feet, still clayish after all this time. The soft sensation made me want to sink to my knees and clip the tangled stems to ensure I’d get the fattest flowers. For a moment, I paused, weight on my toes, so close to succumbing.
But only for a moment.
I didn’t bother to dig, I just grabbed close to the base. Dry bark cracked in my grip as I pulled. The stunted bush came out easily—too easily. Its roots had been half dead for a long while. I threw it to one side and started on the next.
Thorns tore at my palms. Pinpricks of beautiful, useless pain.
I didn’t stop.
Their twisted branches tangled in my hair. They scratched my face.
Teeth gritted, I yanked out that one and the next and the next.
I needed food more than I needed this reminder of past beauty.
Maybe that hot liquid trickling down my cheeks was blood from the scratches. Perhaps it was tears.
I’d killed for the sake of survival. I’d fucked a husband I hated for the sake of survival. Tears were as useless as the roses I ripped up, but blood? Yes, I would bleed for survival.
Whatever it took.