A Madison Lake Novel
Proberta Gerber is stunningly beautiful, spoiled and bored to distraction. When her ex-fiancé, Henley Hornbrook III, runs off to the dark mysterious forest with his new love, the gypsy woman Rosetta, Proberta goes in search of them. What begins as an ordinary day trip to Rosetta’s hut, turns into an extraordinary escapade filled with self discovery beyond her wildest dreams.
Set in turn of the century England, this sequel to A Cloud of Hawthorne will catch up with familiar characters, introduce new ones and take you on an adventure as scandal, passion and true love bring you full circle. Another of Madison Lake’s action packed romance novels, Where Daffodils Grow Wild, will keep you lusting for more.
Chapter One – THE PLAN
It had been a long six months. The weather remained gray and wet for the duration, which was nothing new by British standards, albeit very tiresome by any other. Day after soggy day, the air was thick with precipitation and after a while, dampness crept in and settled under one’s skin. Finding it difficult to keep warm and to keep spirits high, most took to the local pubs, where fires burned hot and pints of ale flowed freely. Of late, Harold Lester had become a regular at the local pub, The Pig’s Prattle.
The engagement hadn’t lasted long, three months at best, but that, she supposed, was nothing new either. She had a habit of indirectly sabotaging any relationship with substance. By now the pattern had set in, and she was clearly aware of it, but unable to undo what fundamentally came easily to her. Try as she might, her snobbish attitude, childish behavior, or cockiness seemed to ruin everything. Proberta sighed. What’s a girl to do?
She removed a brown leather satchel from the vanity drawer, undid the clasp, removed an emery board and proceeded to file her nails. Tilly was in the other room tending to Madam Hornbrook’s needs before supper, which usually meant changing the bedding on the large four poster mahogany bed, dressing her in fresh, clean attire, and doing her hair. Whether eating alone or with others, Edith always dressed properly for mealtime. Proberta disliked staying at the mansion with Edith and the help. It was so quiet and dull, and she was sick and tired of Edith’s bossiness. Just because Edith had offered her shelter and care after her most recent disengagement to Harold Lester, didn’t mean she owned her. Proberta had money, and she paid Edith handsomely for her room and board, but Edith Hornbrook was used to running a strict and efficient household, and used to ordering her son, Henley III, around. Now that Henley was gone and living his own life with Rosetta, there was no one else, besides Tilly and Randolph, to boss around. But they were used to it. They had been working at the Hornbrook estate longer than she could remember. They wouldn’t know what to do unless they were told, which suited the three of them just fine, but it did not suit Proberta.
Proberta pined for the good old days, when the Hornbrook estate was filled with the jolly laughter of young people in love and in lust. Drinking, teasing and merriment were all part of their daily lives, and although nothing came of their shenanigans, at least not for her, it was such fun. She missed those carefree days. She missed flirting with Wesley before he had met Dorrington, and flirting with Dorrington before he had met Wesley. How funny, she thought, to find herself caught between two men not fighting over her, but over each other. She giggled at the memory. But Wesley and Dorrington were gone now too, living in the forest near Henley and Rosetta. Faithful Beckworth, Henley’s manservant, had followed along and now resided in a small cottage Henley and Rosetta had built for him next door, so he could still tend to his master’s needs – their needs now, loyal as ever. Tears welled up in Proberta’s eyes. How I miss them all.
A knock at the bedroom door brought her out of her reverie.
“Who is it?”
“It’s me, dear,” said Edith, in her ‘I want something from you’ voice.
Proberta walked to the door and opened it. Edith stood before her dressed in her supper finery, complete with peacock feather hairpiece and string of pearls. She could hear Tilly shuffling in and out of Edith’s room, huffing and puffing as if she were carrying loads far too heavy for her. She craned her neck around the corner to get a glimpse of what Tilly was doing, but Edith blocked the view with her solid frame.
“I was hoping you’d be dressed and ready to join me for a cocktail before supper, my dear Proberta. You must be aware that my husband and I used to enjoy our pre-dinner time together.”
Proberta knew that was a lie, but said nothing. She remembered the spite Edith had for the beloved Henley II, who everyone had adored. Such a kind-hearted man. If only he had lived…
“Proberta! Are you listening?” Edith cut her musings short.
“Yes, yes of course, Madam. I was just thinking…about…the good old days, that’s all.”
“Oh, bollocks. Grow up, child. The good old days were gone when I married.” Edith stiffened. “Now, will you please join me for a cocktail in the drawing room. I will wait there for you. Make haste.” With that, Edith turned and swept down the hall to the staircase that elegantly cascaded down to the main foyer. Proberta sighed again. How long can I endure this? She put her emery board back into its case, pinched her cheeks to make them rosy, fluffed up her hair and secured the tortoise shell comb that held her brunette curls piled atop her head, threw on her mauve embroidered silk shawl, and headed downstairs.
Randolph had lit a fire an hour before so the drawing room was warm and inviting. Proberta sat across from Edith in the overstuffed armchair that Henley II used to sip his port in. It was comfortable. Proberta understood that the elder Henley found respite in this peaceful room, in this cozy chair, not only to get away from the annoying demands of his wife.
“So,” Edith began. “I see you’ve settled in quite nicely here at the Hornbrook estate.” She eyed the chair on which Proberta sat, but Proberta ignored her. Randolph handed her a gin and tonic, and Proberta nodded her thanks.
“Have you seen any of your peers of late?” Edith ventured, as she nonchalantly gazed out the window. Proberta was not going to take the bait, at least not right away.
“Who, you mean Meredith and Deirdre? I saw them at church on Sunday, and we went out for a cup of tea afterward. Did you know…”
“Not them, you ninny,” Edith snapped, turning back to face Proberta. “You know exactly who I mean. Have you seen or heard from that rascal son of mine?” By this time, Edith’s face was a brilliant red and she was shaking. Proberta felt concern, but only slight.
“No, ma’am, I have not heard from or about Henley, or any of them for that matter.” Proberta, suddenly struck by this woman’s anguish, wanted to give Edith more information about her son, but sadly she had none. She felt as bewildered and neglected as Edith did about this whole affair; Henley running off like he had with Rosetta, and the others following. What had gone so terribly wrong?
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing. He will never find a room here, not on your life. Even if he finds himself destitute, which I’m sure he will in due course, he will never be welcomed back at the Hornbrook estate again. Not after running off with that…that wench.” Edith turned once more to face the window and looked out at the steady drizzle that shrouded the entire countryside in dismal gray. As if a momentary lapse had caused her to forget, Proberta knew, and understood, why Henley – her Henley, had left. Her eyes pierced through Edith’s very being, angry at all the bitterness and disruption she had caused, but if the woman had noticed Proberta’s frustration, she paid her no mind.
Dinner was eaten in silence, both women deep in their own thoughts. Edith, fighting with her own feelings about the loss of her only son, ate very little, and turned away dessert of stewed plum pudding with Devonshire cream. Proberta was aware of Edith’s pain, but she also knew the woman would never turn her son away. She loved him too much, their history too deep. But Edith’s arrogance and temper got the better of her, and whether she liked it or not, Edith pushed people she loved out of her life, never wanting to get too close. It was then that Proberta realized she and Edith were two peas in a pod, that she had landed at the estate for a reason. Was it to recognize the fact that they were so alike, or was there something more in the hands of fate?
Just then a small knock at the dining room door preceded Randolph entering carrying a silver tray.
“Madam, a letter for you.” Edith looked puzzled.
“At this hour?” She took the letter and quickly scanned the envelope. She did not recognize the script. “Thank you Randolph. That will be all.”
“Who is it from,” asked an anxious Proberta.
“Patience my child. I haven’t even opened it yet.”
She sliced the seal with the letter knife Randolph had left for her, and began reading aloud.
Dear Madam Hornbrook,
I, or shall I say, we, have been most concerned about you. It has been far too long since we’ve seen or even heard from you. We can only hope you are doing well.
Your son, Henley, is doing wonderfully well indeed.
“Oh, that’s good to hear, wouldn’t you say, Edith?” Edith shot Proberta a wicked glare.
“Let me finish, will you, child?” Edith barked. Proberta flinched and nodded. “Now, where was I. Oh, yes…”
The fresh air and exercise seem to do him the world of good. He is remarkably healthy and contented, Madam, although he does miss his mother very much. Edith grunted.
As for Wesley, Dorrington, and Beckworth, they have built fine cottages nearby, and the forest now rings with the vibrancy of a new community. In case you’re interested, they are all three also well. However, this letter is being written in query of your health and well being. How are you, Madam Hornbrook?
“Well, took her long enough to ask,” Edith snarled under her breath.
I ask not only on behalf of your loving son, Henley, but for me. I have been providing tinctures to you for well over a decade, and it grieves me to know you are not getting the proper care you need, especially at this time in your life.
“What on earth does she mean by that? Impudent woman.”
I would like you to know that a three month supply of your tinctures are ready for pick-up. You need them, and I am more than happy to continue to provide them. This batch is a gift for you – free of charge. If you are not comfortable coming to the forest to pick them up, I can send Beckworth, or, if you must, you may send someone on your behalf.
We hope this letter finds you in good health and spirits. We are forever yours,
Rosetta and Henley
Edith folded the letter and placed it gently down on the table, then picked up her Royal Dalton cup and sipped her tea. The room remained quiet, too quiet Proberta thought, but she didn’t dare make the first sound. Luckily Emma, the cook, entered at that moment to clear away the remaining dishes, unaware that there had been a letter or that Edith might be out of sorts.
“Not interested in dessert tonight, Ma’am?” Emma inquired. “Made it ‘specially for you, knowing how you like plums and all. Picked from Mr. Smithers’…”
“No, Emma, I’m not hungry this evening.” Edith said curtly, then immediately softened. “Sorry, Emma, dear. I’m sure it is delicious. Maybe later, with my port.”
Emma nodded and cleared the table. Proberta remained silent, deep in thought. When the table was cleared the two retired to the drawing room to sit by the fire and enjoy a glass of port before bed.
“Edith,” Proberta ventured, as Randolph handed her a rich, tawny port in an elegant crystal glass. She took a sip, savoring its fullness. “I was thinking, perhaps I could go to the forest and collect your tinctures for you.” She paused. “I mean, unless you want to go yourself.”
“Me! Good heavens no. I will not step foot near those wooded glens again, even if it is for my medicines,” Edith proclaimed. Proberta smiled to herself.
“Well then, since you need your tinctures, and you don’t want to go, I’ll go for you. I don’t mind, really I don’t.”
Edith kept her usual pose of staring blankly out the window as dusk fell on the lackluster acre, dipping into the darkness of the misty lake. The warmth of the fire burning in the hearth gave off the feeling of reserved security, which both women needed. As much as Edith was a forbidding figure who affected everyone she came into contact with, Proberta had a certain understanding of her, as if cut from the same cloth, and although Edith annoyed Proberta most days, Proberta also felt a protective tranquility when around her.
As Strauss played from the modern phonograph set up in the corner, a calm settled over the room. Proberta felt certain that Edith had guessed what she had been up to. As much as she feigned innocent, Proberta knew exactly what she was doing when leading the direction of their conversation to her volunteering to go into the forest. Now, she waited to see whether the wrath of Edith Hornbrook would be unleashed, and she would be nailed to the cross, or whether Edith would ignore the obvious and relent to Proberta’s scheme. One thing she had on her side was that Edith was nosey. She would want to get news – any news – about her son, and she’d love to hear gossip and information about the others as well. As usual, Edith played it cool for a while, ordering more port from Randolph, discussing the choice of music being played, ringing for Tilly to bring her plum pudding, and so on.
The clock struck nine as the two women rose to retire to their respective bedrooms. Darkness had enveloped the acre surrounding the estate, and in the drawing room, only the soft yellow light from two small lamps, and the embers simmering from the fire, glowed.
“Good night, dear,” said Edith as Proberta placed her empty port glass on the side table, resigned. “And if you’re not too busy, tomorrow would be a good day for you to pick up my tinctures from that gypsy woman.” Edith paused. “Weather permitting, of course. I’ll send Tilly first thing in the morning to send word you are coming. That should give time for her to gather my medicines together. I’ll have payment in a velvet coin purse ready. Ask Tilly to give it to you before you set off.”
Proberta tried not to show her excitement, but a grin overtaking her dour look could not be avoided.
“Oh, I’m so glad you have decided to let me fetch your tinctures, Madam. They are so important for your health and well being. If…”
“Oh enough of your swooning over me. You got what you wanted, now go to bed. I’ll not see or hear from you until you return in the morrow, and with news. I want lots and lots of news.” She huffed. “Good night, Proberta”.
Once the ornery Edith had gone, Proberta nearly ran up the stairs to her bedroom. She didn’t care that the old bag had revealed her plan, or that she had snapped at her. The fact was, she was going on an adventure, and she was going to see Henley and all the others. She slipped into the white lace gown that Tilly had laid out on the bed for her, and climbed into crisp, freshly laundered sheets. However did Tilly find the time? she wondered. Giddy with excitement, Proberta let her hands slip under the downy quilt to settle on her soft thighs. Soon they found their way over to caress the short fuzzy hair that surrounded her private parts. The warmth between her legs was irresistible, and before she knew it, Proberta was lost in a world of sensual pleasure filled with erotic visions that caused a hot flush to course through her veins. Her back arched as her fingers gently probed deep into her moist cavern. She didn’t remember the climax as she slipped into a dream so sweet it seemed to be one long, delicious orgasm.