A Madison Lake Novel
READ A REVIEW: Jan Prins book review
Get swept into the English countryside full of afternoon teas and fox hunts, corsets and bowler hats, where the British upper class hide truths behind their petticoats, and impropriety reins supreme. Meet cranky and bitter Edith Hornbrook, who is bored with running the Hornbrook estate so entertains herself by meddling. She arranges for her son, Henley III, to meet an exotic gypsy woman who lives in the forest beyond the estate. There he will learn the secrets of love before his impending nuptials to the enchanting heiress, Proberta Gerber. But all gets botched when temptation takes the reins and sex, lust, and true love collide.
“So, do you have it?” She asked.
Henley Hornbrook III dug into the deep pockets of his brown wool trousers and pulled out a small, square velvet box. A glimmer of light caught the thin gold band that bordered the lid as the sun streamed in through the open window. The small gift sparkled. Lace curtains stirred from a soft, spring breeze. He cleared his throat, then gently lifted the lid of the box, and thrust it toward his mother proudly. She smiled.
“Ahh, that will do. Yes, that will do perfectly, just perfectly.” She faced the open window, allowing the air to cool her. It was a warm day, and the linen collar of her dress, tightly buttoned around her neck, was not only itchy but it was making her terribly warm. Unless, she thought, it was another one of those blasted hot flushes.
Edith Hornbrook turned toward her son briskly and brushed his hand out of the way, nearly toppling the five carat diamond engagement ring from it’s nest of purple satin.
“Enough,” she said sharply. “We mustn’t fuss over matters such as these. Put the thing away.”
“It’s fine, Henley,” his mother cut him off. “She’ll be delighted by it, you’ll marry, and all will be well. Now, go and dress for supper. You don’t want to keep your father waiting now, do you?”
Henley, who stood head and shoulders above his petite mother at six foot one inch, skulked off to his room. Her eyes followed him with a look of bored satisfaction. He’s just like his father, she thought. So predictable, so pliable. All I have to do now is get that silly girl to cooperate.
Just then Matilda entered, carrying freshly folded bedding and a bar of camomile soap wrapped in crisp, white tissue paper.
“Hello Mum,” Matilda said with a small curtsy as she passed Mrs. Hornbrook and walked toward the dressing table. “Your bed will be ready for you as soon as supper’s over, Mum.”
“Yes, thank you Tilly. Is Mr. Hornbrook downstairs having his drink?”
“Yes, Mum. He said to tell you he’s in no hurry for supper.” Matilda began to strip and make the four poster rosewood bed.
“He was reading the Tribune when I left him. Is he still?”
“Yes, Mum. He seems to be quite engaged.”
“Hmm. Well then, I think I might take a wander down to the pond before supper, to take in some air.”
“Isn’t the Lady interested in her usual Champagne cocktail with the Master this evening, Mum?”
“Not tonight, Tilly. I’m going out. I’ll be back before dusk, by the time the dinner bell rings.”
Edith Hornbrook snatched her pink silk shawl from the vanity chair, draped it loosely around her shoulders, and swept out of the room, leaving Tilly to her chores. She hardly glanced into the drawing room as she passed, so did not see her husband fast asleep in the mahogany armchair, whiskey precariously tilted toward the floor in his drooping hand. It was just as well. She had no tolerance for her husband, Henley II’s, idleness. It wasn’t that he actually was idle, he ran a large shipping company, Hornbrook Enterprises, with the precision and accuracy that gives wealth it’s middle name. He had built it from an earnest investment when he was twenty one, having a mind for seeking out, and pouncing on lucrative prospects. Those were Henley’s glory days. Young, handsome, and exceedingly bright, he was every young girl’s hope for marriage. But Henley II was naive. Raised by strict Christian parents, he knew nothing of the ways of women, not to mention sex. Being so wrapped up with his education, then his business, there wasn’t a moment to dwell on matters of the heart or otherwise. So when the glamorous socialite, Edith Merriweather, was presented at the spring ball wearing a lavender gown that revealed elegantly thin ankles (unheard of!) and feet so delicate it took his breath away, Henley II had his first real sexual awakening, hence, shortly thereafter, asked for Edith’s hand in marriage. Unbeknownst to him, Henley’s new wife was not only after his fortune, but after every man who became acquainted with the successful young couple.
Whether he turned a blind eye to the ways of his wandering wife, or whether he was too engrossed in his profitable business to notice, one can only guess. However, Henley II gave Edith a wide berth, therefore allowing for a successful (of sorts) marriage of forty odd years, two lovely children, Margaret, twenty four and unmarried, and Henley III, twenty one. The arrangement provided a kind of happy acceptance on both parts.
Edith strolled down the cobbled path to the water’s edge. Three of the four white swans they kept on the estate were visible, searching for food among the reeds. A few small fish could be seen jumping out in the middle of the pond, and mosquitos and crane flies swarmed around the marsh grass that grew at record speed along the shady shoreline near the trees. It takes too much of Jeffrey’s time, Edith pondered as she walked. There must be a way to control the growth of these weeds so he can attend the rose bushes and keep up with the lawns…
From the wooded area near the far end of the pond, Edith heard a rustling. Her heart jumped, and for a moment she felt ready to race back to the house for fear of her life, but then a familiar face appeared behind a weeping willow branch. Edith relaxed, looked around to see that there was no one nearby to see her, and casually sauntered toward the shrouded figure. When she got close enough, she ducked behind the tree and came face to face with an exotic, albeit rustic looking woman.
“Hello, Rosetta,” Edith said with keen interest. “Do you have my tinctures?”
The dark haired beauty reached into the pockets of her crimson skirt and pulled out three brown glass vials. Rosetta twirled them around between her fingers before handing them over to an anxious dame of the Hornbrook manor.
“Thank you, Rosetta. I am much obliged, as always.” With that, Edith handed over an embroidered satchel. The coins inside clinked upon the exchange. Taking no notice of the contents, Rosetta placed the small purse into the pocket that had held the vials, and without saying a word, turned to go.
“Uh, excuse me, Rosetta,” Edith said, stopping the young woman in her tracks. “I have one more favor to ask of you before you leave.”
“Yes, what is it?” Her voice, though seldom heard at great length by Mrs. Hornbrook, reminded her of wind chimes, so clear and songlike. It seemed to echo through the forest beyond the grounds, even though her words were spoken in almost a whisper.
“Well, this is somewhat awkward for me.” Edith shuffled back and forth on her feet, crunching leaves as she did. It was unlike her to get uncomfortable or distressed. Rosetta took note.
“Well, you know my son, Henley – Henley III?” Rosetta simply nodded.
“He is recently engaged to be married, or will be.” Again, Rosetta nodded, as if it were no surprise. Edith had wanted a little more encouragement from the gypsy woman, nonetheless, she continued. “He is to be engaged to that wretched Miss Gerber,” Edith went on. “However, she comes from good stock and is a good match for my Henley, even though she is far too outgoing. Which brings me to my point.”
Rosetta didn’t waiver, nor did she comment on anything said so far. She stood patiently and waited.
“You are a woman with much knowledge, Rosetta. You have ‘the gift‘ as they say. My own nanny and chambermaid had ‘the gift‘ too, which is how I came to recognize it in you.” Rosetta did not move, but continued to look Edith attentively. “Well…” Edith stammered. “Here it is then. I’d like you to find a way to lure my Henley to your hut in the forest…or wherever you want, for that matter.” She stopped short, searching for the right words. Suddenly, Edith stood tall and straight. “I want you to teach my Henley the ways of women,” she suddenly blurted.
Again, the Rosetta kept herself in check, but her eyes, Edith noticed, shone the slightest hint of interest.
“What did you have in mind?” she asked, almost teasingly. Edith was taken aback, then regained her composure.
“You know perfectly well what I have in mind,” Edith said with conviction. “Teach him. Show him all there is to know about sex and women. Equip him with the tricks of the trade, as it were.” She paused to consider her next move. “I will pay you handsomely I assure you.”
Edith did not take her eyes off of Rosetta, carefully assessing her reaction through facial expression and body language. As if reading her hand, Rosetta did not flinch.
“He will need you if he’s to marry Proberta, you know.” Then Edith sighed loudly, and stared out into the distance. “Oh, my poor, naive Henley. He needs all the help he can get.”
Just then the dinner bell rang. It could be heard loud and clear where the two women from entirely different backgrounds, and entirely different lives, stood huddled conspiratorially at the edge of the forest, hidden from view. Edith could see Emma, the cook, looking across the vast stretch of lawn for her.
“I must be going,” she said, turning to Rosetta, then back to the porch, and Emma, who had turned and was returning to the house. “But you will do this, won’t you?”
Edith Hornbrook looked pleadingly at Rosetta, and for a moment – a very brief moment – Rosetta almost believed Edith sincerely cared about her son and his future well being. Then that recognizable smirk reappeared on her face, that I’m not to be trifled with look.
“When do I begin?” Rosetta asked, a twinkle in her eye.