Authors: Killian McRae
Tags: #historical romance, #irish, #England, #regency romance, #victorians, #different worlds, #romeo and juliet, #star-crossed lovers, #ireland, #english, #quid pro quo
A Love by Any Measure
Copyright ©2011 by Killian McRae
All Rights Reserved. Except as specified by U.S. Copyright Law, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or media or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system without prior written permission of the author.
Tulipe Noire Press
P.O. Box 815, Palo Alto, CA 94302
First Print Edition, November 2011
First eBook Edition, November 2011
This work represents a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations or locales are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.
ISBN (print): 978-0-9839797-0-8
ISBN (electronic): 978-0-9839797-1-5
To Robin, Lisa, Michele, Jen, and Laura-
For words mean little, but actions do not. Thank you for your friendship.
In remembrance of Pa Short. If not for him, I would not have had clothes on my back, food on my plate, and love in my heart.
Killarney, Ireland, Autumn 1866
have an understanding then.”
Lord August Grayson sneered as his prideful, bemused eyes took in her frame from tip to toe. It might as well have been his hands that catalogued her every feature, so astute was his examination.
Maeve shuddered at the thought. His hands. With that to which she had just agreed it wouldn’t be long, she supposed, until those hands and not just his eyes explored her on all sides and in all measures.
His attention turned back to her expression, no doubt noting the last threads of her hesitation dancing across her face in the form of a mouth slightly agape.
She took a quick, shallow breath, her gaze searching the floor for a divine sign, a reprieve waiting there for her and her father’s precarious situation. She and Rory, while of meager means, did not consider themselves paupers. And they certainly did not consider themselves beggars. But rent was due on their cottage, the cottage which sat on Grayson-deeded land, and there just wasn’t money to pay.
Maeve wasn’t sure what she had expected when setting out for the landlord’s middleman, the overseer of his estate who collected rents from the dozen or so tenants spread across the east shore of Middle Lake. At best, perhaps to buy some time — a month or two — until she could figure out something, anything.
When instead of the massive Irishman she sought, she crossed paths with the lord of the manor himself, she was befuddled. Stinging memories of August Grayson from ten years before remained, a mixed sack of pleasant afternoons weighted against the smoldering pain of the last moments they had spent together. They had been barely more than children then. Though she had heard of his return to Killarney several weeks prior, she had yet to catch more than a distant glimpse of him. That he should have grown to be so uncompromisingly handsome—a fine figure of a man who had never known hunger, with ebony hair and eyes greener than any Englishman had right to possess—smarted worse than his dominion over her. It would have been much easier to despise him properly if he had grown to be hefty, bald, and sickly.
Looking back up and trying to remain stoic, she could barely conceal how he unnerved her, how his return twisted her in knots. She simultaneously wanted to throw her arms around him and to whack him with the riding crop that he rolled in his hands. But she wouldn’t give him the honor of knowing he did anything to her. Ma had once said that the opposite of love wasn’t hate, it was indifference. She would strive to be indifferent now, not to give him the honor of her kindness or her hate. She would not, could not, look him in the eye. She struggled to hold on to the last thing she had still in her control—her pride.
“I understand,” Maeve returned, lifting her head ever so slightly to meet his gaze.
“Good,” he answered. “See it through, and consider your rent paid.”
Such emerald eyes were entrancing and seductive, but they could not outweigh the inhumanity of the compromise he had just offered. “I understand, but I will take no pleasure from it.”
He marched to within inches of her quivering frame, his mouth so close to her ear that she actually heard him lick his lips.
“This isn’t about your pleasure,” he reminded her, a hint of both reprimand and excitement in his voice. He chuckled softly as he backed away, sensing the effect his proximity had. “You and your father can stay in your little cottage on my property as long as you present yourself to me when summoned. Whenever, without qualification. However, because I am a gracious, God-fearing man, you may reserve Sundays for your own affairs.”
A disgusted scoff escaped Maeve’s lips as he claimed the title of God-fearing. Godless is more apt, she thought.
At a distance better suited for gauging, his hungry gaze drank her in. Her attire certainly didn’t flatter; the simple full length brown skirt and long-sleeved cotton shirt was likely as far from the glamour and glitter of British society as she could manage to achieve. Her hair lay unkempt, though not messy, and certainly did nothing to enhance the soft curvature of her chin or the understated earthen tone of her eyes.
To a peasant, beauty held as much a disadvantage as not, and Maeve had learned early in life the danger being desirable held. It was for this reason she had shunned most suitors and allowed her reputation for being disinterested in marriage endure for so long. Not taking any efforts to appear more comely to the opposite sex helped as well. It was also the reason, however, that she was still unwed at the advanced age of twenty-two.
Her appearance merely confirmed the poor soil in which that flower had bloomed. Not that their poverty mattered to Grayson, Maeve knew. He only saw the Irish renting on his land as property, no better than livestock, animals to be used. And certainly, the way his eyes took measure of her now, she wouldn’t have been surprised if he called out to his stable master to prepare the brand.
“I have agreed to your terms,” the lass growled lowly. “I’ll come tomorrow.”
He smiled impishly as his mischievous eyes drew to her mouth.
“We will start slowly,” he agreed, grinning. “Our first time together will last five seconds, ten the next, then twenty, and so on, doubling each time. As long as you hold up your end of our agreement, you have nothing to fear. Be warned, however, that I demand full compliance, and I’ve low tolerance for those who do not value my time. And we do not start tomorrow, Miss O’Connor.”
She cast him a curious glare.
“We will start now, as a way to seal our deal in good faith.”
Maeve sighed in reluctance, but she hadn’t any choice. She unbuttoned the latch from her wool cloak, let it drop to the dirt floor, paced to the middle of the stable aisle, and closed her eyes. She had agreed to let him do whatever he wished, but she did not agree to reciprocate. He was sorely mistaken if he assumed any such intentions on her part, despite the fact that any of the other Killarney girls would have traded their best stockings for such a chance. Oh, he was handsome, she acknowledged, but the devil so often was when he came courting.
A low chuckle met her ears, and she again felt the heat of his breath on her neck.
“It almost seems an unfair tease,” he whispered. “Five seconds is hardly enough time to do anything truly enjoyable. Still ... ”
In one brisk pull, the unsuspecting girl found herself pressed hard against his body, his mouth meeting hers. Maeve’s eyes shot open as she felt his tongue slipping past her softening lips, before fluttering closed again. Her body betrayed her, heating over and giving in to his insistence, as he tasted her deeply, molding her to his embrace. Maeve’s hands moved to touch his face just in the moment he pulled away.
He grinned at her as if he had caught her farce, her hands waving about in empty space where moments ago his face had been.
Anger surged through Maeve. She felt the fool, knowing she had wondered for years what it would be like to kiss August again. But they were no longer the youths they had been once. This man was no friend; he was her lord. She quickly realized she needed to keep up her guard; his kiss might have set her pulse racing, but he would never hold her heart.
“See, Miss O’Connor?” he laughed. “What I do is for my pleasure, but I think you’ll learn to like it a bit, too … as time goes on.”
Clenching teeth gave way to bitter words.
“I will never take pleasure from anything you offer,” Maeve hissed. “If we should continue until we spend days on end together, I always at the mercy of your hand and lip, I will hold only contempt and disgust for you.”
Maeve turned on her heel and charged out, quickly making her way down the stonewall path, en route to the meadow by Middle Lake. She arrived home to discover her father, Rory, still out. Maeve set about peeling potatoes, her mind reflecting on the abhorrent agreement.
To be Lord Grayson’s plaything, loaned against the clock, with interest …
She worked out the numbers in her head, and even with her basic understanding of arithmetic, she figured out how quickly these episodes would add up.
Well, it would not need to continue forever, she consoled herself. Owen had promised that they could soon be wed. She just needed to endure until enough money had been saved, and then their vows could be made. Then, joined to a good man as wife, she and her da would be safe.
Safe from poverty.
Safe from hunger.
Safe from the likes of the despicable Lord Grayson.
With Payment Due
“Maeve! Come down now or I swear to Saint Peter, I’m coming up!”
She groaned and rolled over. The loft where she slept was hardly easy on the back. For one so young, it was a wonder she could feel so old.
Of course, dreams haunted by the remembrance of the kiss made the night hardly restful, and distinctly lacking in sleep.
Rory handed his daughter a cup of tea as she shimmied down the ladder, giving one last stretch when she reached the floor. She took it wordlessly, though she gave him a quick nod to convey her thanks.
“Going to field?” she asked, as they sat at the table and began dividing between them the soda bread and eggs Rory had prepared.
Rory O’Connor was a man of great action and few words. Often, his offerings were limited to a bare minimum, and consequently Maeve had learned to keep to the point and save socializing for those more appreciative of conversation.
It was in the morning that she most missed her mother. Rory had never been unkind, but after his Sine’s death a few years prior, a coolness had filled in the cracks of their relationship. She wondered if perhaps she had imagined having been closer with him when her mother was alive. Perhaps Rory saw the relationship he had with his daughter only as an extension of what he had with his wife. Or maybe Rory pulled back his affections, fearing Maeve’s eventual marriage would be losing another woman he loved, leaving him even more broken.
Though, maybe not. After all, he had made no secret of how thrilled he was when Owen Murphy had asked for his daughter’s hand. After they had announced their intent to wed following mass one Sunday, he used some of their limited funds to order a round of pints at the pub and toast to Owen’s relieving their — and Maeve wondered if he meant his — burden.
In the meantime, he and Maeve made do as best they could.
“Will you be back for supper?”
Rory scooped up some egg on his bread and stuffed it in his mouth. “Suppose I might go to the pub a bit.”
Maeve rolled her eyes in frustration. “Da, however are you to get better if you stay out all hours of the night boozing?”
“Owen’s right next to me the whole time, Maeve.”
With the taste of August still on her lips, her insides squirmed at the mention of her husband-to-be.
“I can picture the wedding now. My drunken father will present me to my drunken husband, and the priest will invite all to make hopeful wagers on who will fall down first. Who needs communion wine when there’s the Jolly Root Pub?”
“Don’t get smart, Maeve O’Connor. Neither one of us is set drunk. Only … warmed.”
“Warm as a hot day in Aug … ” The rebuke died on her tongue. When her father looked back up, confused, her brow furrowed. Changing the subject, she was able to distract him. “Well, I suppose it doesn’t hurt if you and Owen are becoming better acquainted. After all, he’ll be your son-in-law soon.”
Rory nodded offhandedly, as though acknowledging as much truth as “it might rain later.” She knew the upcoming union pleased him, but wondered if sometimes Rory had wished that Sine had left him with a son instead. If God was to give him but one child, what a shame that it should be a girl.
She cocked her head to the side. “Do you ever wish I’d been a boy? Then I’d be able to go out and find work? A son would marry a good woman who’d keep house, and—”
“Shh-shh!” Rory’s hand rose up, as though he could hush her with the power of his mind. “I’ve never vexed the Lord for sending us a daughter.”
“But if you’d had a son, perhaps after I was born,” she continued. “Mightn’t you have … ”
A look of great woe and sadness crossed the Irishman’s face, a look Maeve saw him wear regularly following her mother’s death. “We would have loved three sons and four daughters, Maeve, but your mother just couldn’t … Well, the good Lord knows best his plan.”
Maeve hushed and nibbled at her eggs, and Rory turned his attention back to his plate.
“Did you speak to Patrick?”
She almost choked as he asked after the middleman she had been dispatched to find the day before.
“No,” she replied, gagging. “No … I was on … ” she coughed “ … my way to his cottage when I ran across Aug … Lord Grayson.”
At the mention of the ungracious English lad who had wormed his way into their family only to spit in his daughter’s face years ago, Rory cringed. “Don’t suppose he was a sympathetic ear.”
“No, he agreed to the extension,” Maeve informed her father, then hesitantly added, “with certain … requirements.”
Rory all but leapt up from his seat. “Bastard. What does he want? Bigger share of our crops? More livestock? Interest?”
Maeve rushed to calm her father before his outburst gave him a spell. “No, Da, nothing of the sort. He asked for an exchange of labor.”
Rory’s eyebrow crooked. “What type of labor?”
Voicing the word in the same suggestive tone, Maeve’s mind leapt to all the damage that could come from owing favors to an Englishman. Her reputation was untarnished. Charitable despite her humble state and considered a fine beauty, the blacksmith had not been the first to try courting her. But Rory was a poor man, with no hope of changing that fact, and the only dowry Maeve could offer was her good name and good looks. No doubt her father didn’t want one speck of dirt from Grayson muddying that.
“He’s short staff, having just made home here. He wants me to help … ” Maeve’s eyes dashed around the room in search of inspiration when she focused on their partially eaten breakfast. “ … bake bread. Like Ma taught me!” she quickly added in response to Rory’s doubtful grimace. “He remembers Ma’s bread and wants me to make it like she did. Ma’s bread was famous, you remember? Of course, he asked that I give the recipe, but I refused. So I’m to bake bread at Shepherd’s Bluff now and then, per his request.”
Rory eyed his daughter suspiciously, then the bread on the table, then his daughter again. He hadn’t known Maeve to be a liar before, and though odd, he wouldn’t deny the truth of his deceased wife’s culinary talents. Her bread was famous across County Kerry, and as a young man, August had been quite taken with it. Even Emmanuel Grayson, his father, was known to have enjoyed an offering sent home with August on occasion.
He accepted, but gave Maeve a strict warning: “When he asks it of you, you get straight there and straight back. Don’t get yourself wrapped up in the affairs of the English. They’re friends of no good fortune in the bye and bye.”
Glad to let go the topic, Maeve didn’t question her father’s cryptic remark, only agreed that she wouldn’t tarry any longer than needed. After all, she thought, it would be some number of visits before her payments to August would take longer than what would be expected for making bread.
“And one other thing, Maeve.” She looked at him inquisitively. “If you’re going to use his kitchen, maybe bake a few loaves for our table, too.”
Rory set to field with a pack of that famous bread tucked into his satchel while Maeve went about her chores, as always. Wash, more baking, cleaning away the ash in the fireplace, stacking the dishes in the cupboard. She paused when washing out the very mug she drank from that morning, her finger passing over a chip in the rim.
She remembered with a smile how that chip had gotten there ten years before.
August had mentioned that he had never drunk fresh, warm milk. In England, his milk was always fresh, but tepid or chilled. Sine had promptly sent Rory out to milk their cow, though so soon after its morning milking it hardly provided enough to fill the two matching, earthenware mugs. She’d presented one to Maeve and one to August, along with a slice of freshly baked brown bread. August had gulped down the foamy offering and was upset when he found his mug so quickly drained. He had tipped it up high, trying to savor every last drop, and shook it. The resultant clink had sent Sine into a tizzy, thinking he had broken a tooth. When it turned out only the mug was chipped, she’d breathed a heavy sigh of relief.
It was fair to say that Sine O’Connor liked August Grayson then. He had been kind, though fiercely inquisitive, and she hadn’t failed to notice the way he followed her daughter around like a puppy to its master. All this, despite the fact that he was two years Maeve’s senior. Fair to say, however, that Maeve’s interpretation of his behavior toward her had been quite different. August had been a pal at times, but other times he’d been a downright nuisance. Maeve grimaced still when passing the back field near the cattle’s watering hole and remembering how August had snatched up one of the marsh frogs and chased her around. The event had ended abruptly when Maeve lost her footing and went crashing forward into the water and muck, covered tip to toe in vile, putrid filth.
Yet, that compared not a bit to the way she felt now, as if her soul had crashed into the watering hole and emerged soiled and grime-ridden. She felt pulled between two sins: if she did not go through with the arrangement, she kept her chastity intact for Owen but would lose their cottage, leaving her and Rory with no place to go. But a good daughter did what she could to take care of her widower father. Thou shall honor thy father and thy mother. How could she not agree?
To whom did she owe a greater allegiance, after all? Husband-to-be or father? Father, for certain, and so she would go to August to make her next payment.
It felt like the sun was setting on more than just the day as afternoon dissolved into evening. She gathered her cloak tightly around her to ward off the chill. By the grace of God, she met no one on the road. She did not know how she would explain her outing if she had. All knew Maeve as a hearth-haunter and not one to go traipsing outside after dark. Rumors would abound.
Each step that carried her up the tree-lined drive to Shepherd’s Bluff made her feet feel heavier and her head feel lighter. She approached the front door and found herself stalling, not knowing how to proceed. Knock and wait, or simply go in? Though what she had told her father was true, and even Patty O’Keefe had mentioned Shepard’s Bluff suffered a shortage of staff, there were several servants who lived in the side quarters. Were they privy to this? Would she need to track them down and beg them to keep their lips sealed? Would they tarry off to tell Owen?
The ornately carved door swung open, halting her considerations. The firelight of her lantern flickered against Grayson’s eyes, causing an entrancing clash of red on green. He was dressed in a nightshirt and woolen gray overthrow, and despite her best attempts to steel herself, she trembled upon her eyes meeting his.
“I saw you coming,” he offered as she began to mouth the question, almost as if he had read her mind. “I saw your lantern’s light from down the road. Am I mistaken, or did you trip coming up the pathway?”
Her cheeks flushed red as she followed him inside.
“I have a tendency to fall when you’re concerned,” she admitted shyly. “Perhaps you remember that one incident in particular?”
His lips curled into a knowing half-smile, an echo of the same grin he wore upon seeing a younger Maeve covered in muck. “Vividly.”
He spoke no more as he led her up the stairs with only his lantern to light their way. His steps were feather light, as though he were sneaking about his own home. At the third door, they paused as he unhitched the catch and made a quick jerk of his head.
Her eyes were immediately drawn to the bed and to linens of pure white that would surely caress the skin like a milk bath. Across from the four-poster bed, a fire crackled and snapped on the hearth, two plush wingback chairs sat at angles in front. Grayson removed his cloak and sweater, tossing them over the back of the chair, took a seat in one, and indicated that Maeve should sit in the other. Already, beads of sweat dotted her brow, though she knew not if it was from her proximity to the hearth or to Grayson.
“I’ve been thinking about our agreement, and I need to make a few clarifications and alterations,” he began as she perched on the edge of the chair across from him. She cocked her head to the side and let him continue. “For example, in these early days, when our time is so short, we need to agree from what point our clock starts. Simply sitting here as such is not satisfying the requirement on your end.”
She had assumed as much. How ridiculous would it be for her to walk through the mists and cold to stay only ten seconds?
“So what would start us?”
“I will acknowledge the beginning of our time by stroking your cheek. You’ll notice the ticking, no doubt, that is coming from the Comtoise clock. That will be your measure. Also, it seems my presence is necessary in town on Saturdays, so I will never require your time on that night.”
Maeve tried not to dwell on the fact that they were negotiating how often she should be at his beck and call.
“I could see from your expression at the front door that you were uncertain how to proceed,” he continued, taking her silence for agreement. “The thought has crossed your mind that the servants in the house might come to know of our arrangement, and how that would besmirch your name about town. I have no current interest in causing you harm in the eyes of all Killarney, and I likewise have no desire for them to be privy to our agreement. Let it stay our secret.”
That she should share any secret with Grayson gave her an unnerving thrill, which she quickly shoved aside.
“My servants have been ordered to vacate this wing by eight every evening and not to return until six the following morning. When you arrive, do not knock, do not tarry. The kitchen door will always be unlocked. Enter and come immediately to this room and to no other room in the house. This is important. Do you understand, Miss O’Connor, never any other room?”
He leaned over in his chair ever so slightly, his nightshirt falling forward, providing Maeve with a clear view of his firm chest. Her breath caught, but she madly forced her eyes elsewhere.
“I understand, Lord Grayson,” she returned somewhat airily. “I have a modification to make as well.”