Cashel Cosgrove, County Meath, Ireland,
Thea Barrington hugged herself for warmth before her
bedchamber window. Outside,
unprecedented snow swirled about, falling and lifting, borne upon a fickle
wind that hadn’t ceased to blow since she and her entourage arrived in
It was a phenomenon seldom seen in the region, which never got more
than a dusting usually, so she’d been told.
It had been a harsh and bitter winter at home in England as well
that year. It had even snowed in
Cornwall, something that only happened every ten or twenty years. Was it a sign, an omen of ill
boding? Under the circumstances, it
certainly seemed so.
Thea shuddered, pulling her shawl closer about
her shoulders. Not even the blazing
hearth fire could warm the turret cubicle, and to think that this cold,
inhospitable place was soon to be her home.
How had she ever let them persuade her?
her abigail said. “Such
a Friday face. Why, you’d think you was headed for a funeral instead o’ a weddin’.”
“The snow has
covered our carriage tracks already,” Thea said,
avoiding a direct reply. “It’s as if
the brougham never even passed this way—as if it didn’t exist. Could it all be a dream, do you think?”
“I wish…” Thea couldn’t
finish the thought. How could she
expect the simple little maid to understand, when she didn’t herself?
She should be ecstatic.
Nigel Cosgrove, the second son of the third earl of Ridgewood, just
home from the Peninsula on half-pay, was the catch of the season. He was tall, and handsome enough—a
blue-eyed Adonis, with hair the color of burnished gold, and a nearly
sterling reputation, except for that one unfortunate incident concerning
the Covent Garden lightskirt. But he couldn’t have killed her. They wouldn’t have acquitted him otherwise...would
they? She pushed that to the back of
her mind. Again.
“What is it ya’ wish, miss?” the abigail
said, jogging her memory.
Annie, I’m just tired. It’s been a
long journey, and I’d much rather take myself off to bed than face a formal
dinner downstairs in that dreadful dining parlor. Why, it’s so vast, I shall have to shout
to make conversation, and if the fire won’t warm this little cell, I shudder
to wonder how I will survive the meal down there without my chinchilla fur
“You’ve got the
pre-nuptial jitters, is all,” said Alice. “That’s
what my mum calls it. You’ve got ta go down. You
heard Mr. Cosgrove, her ladyship is anxious ta
meet ya’. Ya’ can’t be disappointin’
his mama. No doubt she’s wore the
cook out preparin’.”
not all that anxious to meet her, Thea
thought ruefully. If her ladyship was so anxious
to make her acquaintance, why wasn’t she downstairs to welcome her when they arrived? By all accounts, Annabella
Cosgrove, Countess Ridgewood, was a termagant of the first order, at least
so went the tale. Why else would she
be exiled to such a horrid place, the most distant and desolate of all the
earl’s properties, while he languished in Bath, with his mistress in
Thea almost laughed.
Her family was no better.
Hadn’t her mother cried off from making the journey feigning an
attack of pleurisy, and stayed behind on their Cornwall estate? Hadn’t her
viscount father excused himself over “Crown business”, when everyone knew
he was keeping a Drewry Lane doxy in Town, and
couldn’t bear to miss her Christmas performance? Oh, he would arrive in time to give the
bride away, of course. In the
meanwhile, her brother James, older by one year, an architectural student
under the tutelage of John Nash on Christmas recess, had been recruited to
serve in his stead for proprieties sake.
This was the last thing James Barrington wanted, smelling of April
and May himself, with a girl of his own left to fend for herself in Town
over the holidays. Were all
marriages so fractured? Would hers
be the same, with no love to recommend it—at least on her part? She expected so.
“What say you
come away from that window, miss, and let me tuck some ribbons in your hair
before ya’ go down?” the maid said, interrupting
her thoughts. They needed
interrupting. Thea was
becoming positively forlorn. “These pretty blue
ones?” the maid chirped on. “They’ll look so fine
against your black hair, and they match that frock just perfect.”
Thea started to turn away from the diamond-shaped panes
in their lead fretwork, an obvious addition to apertures that were scarcely
wider than arrow slits, when movement below caught her attention. Someone was walking across the
courtyard. Walking, in such a
storm? It was a woman, her gait more
a stagger as she plowed through the heavily mounting snow that had already
buried the well manicured grounds.
Where had she come from?
There was nothing but rolling hills for miles in that desolate stretch,
where the River Boyne wound its serpentine way through the valley. The villages of Drogheda on the east and Slane on the west were each at least five miles
distant, so she’d been told. Even Oldbridge, the nearest hamlet, was a good two miles
The woman couldn’t have walked from any of them. Not in such a storm. The closest structure was the curious
burial mound Nigel had pointed out on the way. Newgrange,
called Si An Bhru
in the old days, he’d told her, a strange Megalithic passage tomb, where
supposedly only once a year on the winter solstice, sunlight shining
through the roof box lit up the chambers for seventeen minutes. A curious tourist attraction, but certainly no one lived
there. It had piqued her interest,
however, and she made up her mind to be among those who would witness the
phenomenon two days hence, weather permitting. It didn’t seem likely now.
“There’s someone out there,” she said.
“Where, miss?” The maid craned her
neck for a view through the narrow window.
Thea pointed. “She’s
coming here. Never mind the ribbons,
Alice. I shall go down as I am.”
Without a second thought, Thea made
her way below just as the heavy iron ring on the front door banged like
thunder on the dented plate beneath it.
The sound echoed along the empty stone passageways. It ran her through like a javelin. James met her on the landing, and
followed her down to the sound of raised voices funneling up the stairs.
A tall straight-laced butler was standing in the open doorway,
his arm across the span barring a ragged looking woman from entering. Snow making little whorls about his feet
dusted his shoes and trousers legs, snapping in the wind. The woman’s shawl and head
scarf were caked white with it suggesting that she had been out in
the storm for some time.
“Well, you cannot come in here, madam!” the butler said,
opposing the woman who was pushing on the door from the other side. “Be off with ye’! We don’t take in Gypsies. Be off, I say! Or I’ll call the lackeys to put
“It’s not charity I’m beggin’,” the
woman shouted over the wail of the wind. “Just ta warm me weary bones by your fire, and speak me
piece. There’s one inside who needs
“None here needs the likes o’ you!” the butler assured
her. He seemed to be trying not to hurt
her, but he was clearly out of patience.
Thea gasped, pattering toward the commotion.
“What the deuce?” her brother muttered sprinting along behind.
They had reached the Great Hall below, flooded now with others
drawn there by the din, her fiancé among them.
“What seems to be the difficulty, Regis?” Nigel
Cosgrove said, his tall form alongside the vexed butler blocking Thea’s view. She
crept closer for a better look at the woman still begging admittance.
“This person, sir,” said the butler. “She
refuses to leave.”
“My man has told you to depart,” Cosgrove said. “We do not admit your kind, and even if we did it
would never be by way of the front door.
Be off, unless you’d rather I summon the guards from the Watch at
Struggling with the wind in the doorway, he tried to close the
door in the woman’s face, but the wind was too strong of a sudden. The heavy gusts slamming against it
seemed to have risen out of nowhere, and Thea
stifled a gasp, laying a gentle hand upon her betrothed’s bottle green
superfine coat sleeve.
“Nigel, please, she’s nearly frozen stiff!” she said, drawing
his eyes. “What harm to let her warm herself beside the fire for a bit before she moves on?”
“And have her rob us
blind for our pains?” he said, incredulous.
“You do not know these Tinkers, my pet. Like as not, the rest of her band lies in
wait close by. You have one in and
you have the lot on your hands. She
knows the rules. Bold as brass,
these cheeky thieving Gypsies, bigod.” The last was spoken through clenched
teeth, as he wrestled with the heavy door and the woman’s remarkable
“For me…?” Thea
persisted. “She’s old, and I see no others
about. How shall she best you—a poor
frail shadow of a creature against a man of your stature, not to mention
the servants at your command? You
could handle any situation that might arise in a trice. Please, Nigel, ‘tis Christmastide.”
Nigel stared down at her, his face a study in
exasperation. The faint laugh lines
that punctuated his thin lips deepened in a frown that took in his eyes as
well, darkening the clear, sapphire blue to cold slate.
“This is not
England, Thea,” he said as though he were
speaking to a child. That he was restraining
himself was clearly evident. He had a temper. She’d seen it in action, but never
directed at her. Was she testing the
waters, or tempting fate? He didn’t
give her the chance to decide.
“These creatures are like locusts,” he went on. “They
swarm over the land, picking it clean as they go. They know their place, but they stray
from it with no compunction whatsoever, and it is up to us, their betters,
to keep them in it. You have only
just arrived, puss. You are not yet
accustomed to our Irish ways. You
would do well not to interfere.”
“I do not think
any of that has one thing to do with Christian charity,” said Thea, defiant.
“That and that alone is my concern.
One would not turn a dog out on such a night. Besides…I’ve heard tell that it’s bad
luck to turn a Gypsy away without a token.”
his eyes. He’d given over fighting
with the heavy old door and the woman in the way. Regis and several liveried footmen had
come forward and laid hands upon her.
“Please…for me?” Thea said sweetly, hugging
herself and dancing in place. The
biting wind was raw and bitter, tearing through the twilled silk frock that
bared her arms and décolleté.
Already a dusting of white had blown through the open door spilling
over the sill. She had been cold
before, but now she was fairly numb.
spoiling his handsome face. “Very well,” he said,
with a dramatic, arm-sweeping bow from the waist. Waving the servants off, he said to the
Gypsy, “Go ‘round to the servant’s entrance in back. Regis, tell Cook to see she’s warmed and
given bread and broth before she continues on her way.” The last was said, while dosing the woman
with a meaningful glare. She turned
with a nod, but Thea’s hand shot out and gripped
her bony arm through the snow-caked shawl.
drifts?” she said to her betrothed. “They are knee
deep!” then to the woman, as she pulled her over the threshold extracting a
collective gasp from the gathering. “Don’t be
afraid, go with Regis. He will see
you’re cared for, won’t you, Regis?”
jaw dropped. The Gypsy stared at her
long and hard, her wrinkled lips twitching, her long gray hair straggling
out from beneath the snow covered head scarf. Thea took a
chill not bred of the frosty night, staring into eyes that resembled a
raven’s—small, shiny, and black.
They shone with approval.
“I’m not the
one who needs ta be afraid,” the woman said with
a sly wink, her voice like gravel.
“’Tis you that needs ta
hear me words, young miss. ‘Tis you I’ve come ta
warn…” She slid her hooded eyes the
length of Nigel Cosgrove, standing arms-akimbo, the toe of his polished
Hessian boot tapping the rhythm of his annoyance on the terrazzo underfoot.
“That will be
quite enough!” he said, slamming the door with a crack that echoed. It had suddenly become quite
manageable. Dosing it, and then Thea with a withering glance, as if the whole
unfortunate business were her fault, he took hold of the Gypsy and
steered her toward the flabbergasted butler. “Deal
with this at once, and have done!” he charged. “My fiancée evidently has a soft spot in
her heart for strays. I am not so
The woman dug
in her heels. “Not before I speak me piece!” she
said. “And there’s no need ta cross me palm with coin o’ the realm for it,
neither…but it ain’t for the like o’ the rest o’
you lot, what I’ve got ta say …” Wrenching free, she staggered back,
cupped her wrinkled hands around her mouth, and whispered in Thea’s ear.
breath was hot and foul, smelling of garlic, and the ghost of strong ale. Thea shuddered as it puffed
against her skin, and at the words themselves. The blood drained away from her hot
cheeks, and she scarcely breathed. The only sound
then was the thumping of her heart, and the wail of the wind outside,
plaintive and forlorn, like a woman sobbing her sorrows in the night.
The Gypsy had scarcely
stopped speaking, when Nigel seized her arm, none too gently, and remanded
her to the reluctant butler’s custody.
“See her fed
and send her off!” he gritted through clenched teeth, “before I change my
mind entirely. My patience is at low
ebb, I warn you—one and all.”
I’ve told ya,” the woman said, as Regis led her
away. “Ya’ heed me
words, young miss…” She said more,
but they were out of range, and Thea turned back
to the others, perplexed. While she
didn’t understand the woman’s message, the urgency in its delivery was
“So this is
Theodosia,” a high-pitched female voice shrilled over the discordant murmur
leaking from the servants gathered around. The speaker stilled them with a hand
Nigel took a
firm hold of Thea’s arm, his anger palpable.
She sketched a
curtsy. “Yes, my lady,” she said, “but I prefer to
be called ‘Thea’, if you please.”
“Ummm,” said the countess, “how common. Well, I do not please. I shall address you as ‘Theodosia’. It is a fine name—a respectable name. No need to cheapen it with a sobriquet.” Then to Nigel as if she weren’t there, “She needs
taking in hand. She is not mistress
of Cashel Cosgrove yet, m’boy. See to it. Now then!
If we are finished with theatrics for the moment, our supper grows
turned, jutting her elbow for Nigel to latch onto and lead her into the
dining hall. He obliged, and James,
silent throughout the strange occurrence, seized Thea’s
arm and inclined his dark head close.
little sister,” he said in a stage whisper as they followed along behind. “Your cheeks are positively crimson. Don’t let the old peahen get your goat.”
“So much for
good first impressions,” Thea said dourly. “She’s dreadful, isn’t she?”
“Quite so, but
you will charm her.”
“I don’t think
I want to, James.”
“Stuff! You’re not marrying the countess, Thea. It’s Nigel
that matters, and the chap’s quite smitten.”
yes, but not bowled over, Thea thought,
monitoring Nigel’s bearing. Granted,
she’d overreached herself, but he hadn’t defended her in a gentlemanly
fashion. Instead, he had berated her
before the servants—before his mother. She glanced behind. Regis and the Gypsy had disappeared in
the shadows, and she drew a ragged breath feeling very alone all of a
sudden. Even her brother was inclined to side with
her betrothed. It did not bode well.
“What was all
that back there?” James said, calling her back to
the present. “What set you off like
that? Surely you realize you were
way out of line.”
know,” Thea admitted. “It
seemed so heartless to evict the poor creature in such a storm. That would never be the case at
home. I am not
liking Ireland, James.”
You’ll get used to it. ‘Tis the winter that’s put you off; it’s heavenly in
these parts in spring and summer.
The land hereabout is wild and beautiful then. The hunting is top notch. Edgar Farbershire
bagged two awesome stags in the wood south of Drogheda last season—and the
fox hunting! I shall be your perpetual gentleman
guest, sister dear.”
to inherit Cashel Cosgrove,” Thea
went on, scarcely having heard. “He means for us
to live here meanwhile…”
talked to him about your misgivings?” James said,
“I don’t know
as I have misgivings exactly. It’s
just that…Oh, I know, he is the catch of the season amongst the crop of
second sons in the offing. He’s from
one of the richest families in the ton, he’s handsome—everything a
girl could want in a husband, but…”
“But you aren’t in love with him, is that it?”
that will come in time, you know how he wants this match. The Cosgroves’
are high in the instep. He means to
tap that resource. And Mother! She has visions of following the drum,
as it were, of coercing Father into buying a property hereabout, and
setting up housekeeping as far from his doxy as she can range herself. She thinks that will end the affair. No!
I shan’t go into Mother.”
over you?” James said, studying her. How clear and violet his eyes were. Were hers really as
bright? She hoped so. Everyone always praised them, but Divine
Providence had a way of favoring the male of the species before the female
when it came to looks, and she’d always thought him handsome, and herself
drab by comparison.
“Nothing,” she lied.
His look told her she hadn’t gotten away with it, and she
sighed. “All right,” she said. She had never been able to flummox him. “He could be more attentive, James, and I didn’t care
for the way he embarrassed me in company just now.”
He laughed. “Is that all? I was set to take you
to task myself, and would have done if he hadn’t. That independent streak of yours is
legendary, sister dear. It was
refreshing when we were young, but we are not children now, and these are not
accustomed to such…outspokenness in a young lady of quality. All Irish aren’t bog-stomping muck
savages. The Irish aristocracy
strives more diligently than we English to rise above a negative image. You needs must behave unless you fancy putting on your
caps. You’re one and twenty after
all. You’ve had two seasons with no takers. Is that because you are choosy to a
fault? Have you set your standards
too high? You’ll never convince me
that you’ve been passed over because of your looks.” Avoiding his gaze, Thea
didn’t answer. “Well,” he went on, clearing his
voice, “you aren’t likely to do better than Nigel Cosgrove now and
everybody benefits. You ought to
thank your lucky stars that Father interceded. You
were well on your way to becoming a proper spinster.”
Thea supposed so, though she didn’t say it. James wouldn’t understand. He was a man after all. Men looked at such things
differently. Besides, how could she
tell him that, while she longed for a man who would reverence and cherish
her, she secretly fantasized giving her virtue to a man possessed of lusty
passions that would awaken her own, like the heroes in the scandalous
novels and poems she wasn’t supposed to be reading? The gentlemen she’d met during her two
failed Seasons either showed promise in one of those areas or the other,
never both. Nigel had come close to
her hearts desire at home, when he was courting her and on his best
behavior, but now…
They had nearly reached the dining hall, and the mere thought
of sitting at table with the countess now was having its way with her
resolve. The way Nigel danced
attendance—albeit with disdain—to his mother was nauseating. He reminded her of a trained bear she’d once seen at Astley’s Amphitheare, dancing
along obedient as you please at the end of its chain with the slightest
tug, but a dangerous killer once shot of it. It was clear who ruled the roost. He obviously resented it. Was this why he was so insufferable with everyone
else? She shuddered.
“You’re trembling,” James said. “You
took a dreadful chill back there.
Shall I go up and fetch your shawl?”
“No, no, it’s just that…I do not relish facing the countess
“Ummm, can’t say as I blame you, but
it must be done. Enough now! Bear up! You’ve
got some serious fences to mend, my girl.”
“You’re a good brother, and a capital friend, James
Barrington,” she murmured, squeezing his arm.
“And well I know it,” he said with a wink, before clouding
suddenly. “Look here, what did that blasted Gypsy
say to you?” he said. “You went absolutely
white—like you’ve just done now.”
The dining hall arch loomed larger than life before her, and
there wouldn’t have been time to tell it even if she were willing. Instead, she
laid a finger over her lips and put on her bravest face as he handed her
over the threshold.
The Gypsy’s cryptic message would have to wait. She was still trying to sort it out
herself. She’d sensed something
untoward the minute she saw the woman trudging through the snow from her
chamber window, and the chill that riddled her now had nothing to do with
the cold in the drafty old castle.
her brother agreed. “’Tisn’t
important, it’s over. You’ll never
see the odious old crone again.”
the drafty dining hall on her brother’s arm, Thea
didn’t believe that for an instant.