For those of you wondering about the status of THE SINNING HOUR, don't forget you can look at the "Works in Progress" tab. I don't update it every day, but I do update it regularly. I slogged through most of January with the strep-throat-that-would-never-die, and so I'm happy to be well and healthy in February! (And we'll just ignore that SuperBowl game, okay, Broncos?)
If you haven't read the first two chapters of THE SINNING HOUR, go here!
The following sneak peek is for those who have, and for everyone who is very, very patiently waiting (have I mentioned how much I love you?). =) Hope you enjoy!
Simon climbed the staircase to the third floor and turned toward his studio. But a muffled sound, too soft to distinguish between click and thud, halted his steps. Pressing against the wall, he peered into the darkness.
She was only a shadow separating from then merging with other shadows. Her face obscure, the shape of her figure blurred, yet somehow he knew it was Miss Post.
Perhaps because none of his other servants roamed the house at night; there was no need, when he stood as watchman until dawn. Perhaps because she crept a few paces then stopped, again and again, keeping to the walls as if she walked an alley. Seeking protection with an instinct the same as his own, making certain she couldn’t be surrounded on four sides.
Or, perhaps he knew her identity because, as he’d discovered in the drawing room the day before, every sense became heightened when she drew close. He was supposed to be numb, yet his skin felt tight. His house felt different. The air pulsed when she was nearby.
She arrived at the stairs and disappeared. Though he strained to hear her footsteps, she was careful, not allowing one creak or groan.
Softening his breath, he followed.
The second and first floors were empty. He found her on the ground floor at the back of the house, in a room which the late Earl of Fremont had designated as a collector’s den.
Miss Post stood in its center, her back to the doorway. She’d pulled aside one of the curtains, and in the lessened gloom he could see that she didn’t wear a nightgown but a day dress.
She wore shoes on her feet.
The tattered, fringed shawl from the day of her interview lay wrapped around her shoulders.
He’d assumed she meant to slip an item or two into her sleeves, small objects that would go unnoticed. She might have planned to make a habit of it, traipsing downstairs each night then returning her newfound treasure to her room to be stored until she could fence them. She might steal from him, but he’d believed she needed her maid’s position too much.
The last thing he expected was for her to leave.
Her head wasn’t moving about, searching and assessing the room. As far as he could tell, she stared straight ahead—frozen, perhaps, in indecision.
“If I may, I’d suggest the twin porcelain cats. Easy to carry and easier to sell. One cat makes a unique curio, two cats a collection.”
She whirled on a breath—not a gasp. More likely a curse. “Mr. Astley.”
His hands were in his pockets, and he clenched them against the strange urge to reach out and steady her. Then again, everything was strange where she was concerned. Hadn’t he sacked the last maid who’d tried to steal from him? And yet part of him recoiled at the thought of Miss Post’s departure.
You’re taken with her.
Simon sought about the night-shadowed room for another place to rest his gaze.
Strolling past her, he lifted one from its dainty little shelf, the ivory body gleaming in a swath of moonlight, and returned to where she stood.
Too close. She smelled like soap and sugar, and he imagined her sitting on her bed after washing off the sweat of the day, nibbling on one of her almond biscuits. Gathering her courage, crumb by crumb.
He caught her arm, sliding his hand along her sleeve until his thumb brushed across the pliant flesh at the base of her palm. Reveling in the excuse to touch her again.
Her fingers were curled tight and stiff, and he opened them to place the cat inside, much the same way he’d forced her to take the first meat pastry in his study.
How attuned he was to her breaths, the slight trembling of her lips. His mind whirred to calculate the words she might speak next.
“This is what you meant to do, yes?” he asked. “To steal from me, though I’ve opened my home and given you work when every reason existed to send you away?”
But of course she didn’t answer. This was her preferred defense; some misguided with flattery and ramblings, but Miss Post erected battlements and ramparts out of silence.
He could do nothing but try to batter down the door.
“Tell me the truth, Miss Post, and I might decline to call for a constable. It’s probably unwise of me to admit this, but I despise seeing any woman detained in shackles.”
Shifting his hold on her hand, his fingers stretched to encircle the tender skin of her wrist. He could feel the heat transfer from his body to hers, her skin warming. Her pulse throbbed against his thumb, in tandem with his own.
If his words couldn’t reach her, perhaps she would respond to the manacle of his touch. At the very least, his group would thwart her attempt to flee into the night.
Those eyes—those pale, pale green eyes, nearly as feline as the cat she held—stared into his. “I wasn’t going to steal from you.”
He smiled. “Tonight?”
She struggled to jerk her hand away. “I couldn’t sleep. I decided to look around.”
“I understand,” he murmured, and released her. “A new house, new surroundings. You haven’t had enough time during the day. You simply wanted to familiarize yourself with this room, the one farthest from where everyone sleeps. Is that it?”
She went silent again, and he swept the second cat off the shelf.
He opened her other hand.
“Take the cats. Take everything from this room you can carry. Go to my study, the library, the dining room. Don’t forget the silver below stairs. I’ll wait in my studio, and you may have until dawn to select the goods you wish to pawn. Hopefully you’ll get enough coin to stay clothed and sheltered for a few months. Perhaps you’ll even eat roast beef each Sunday. But what will you do after that time, Miss Post? When it’s all gone, will you search for work once more?”
“I’ll be gone from London. That’s all that matters.”
“Ah.” He stepped back, returned his hands to his pockets as he studied her.
If he was wrong, he’d never see her again. This inconvenient pull he felt toward her would be severed. He’d continue the routine he’d come to depend on: painting nude women and tallying his accounts and pretending he’d never slept one night on an East End doorstep.
It would be as if Miss Post and the stench from his past had never entered his study.
But if he was correct in believing that, unlike him, she still retained at least half of her moral compass…
Simon inclined his head. “Very well, then. Take what you will.” Then he forced himself to turn and not look back.
Miranda stared, unseeing, at the cats in her hands. She listened as Astley’s footsteps receded toward the door.
“Why?” she asked, her voice strained. “Why have you been so kind to me?”
The weight of the figurines was heavier than she’d have guessed, but they didn’t singe her skin in protest of her possession. Her conscience gave not a whisper of reproach.
She’d steeled herself to take from him. It didn’t matter how much she told herself she wasn’t a thief; she’d decided to become one. She would tuck the cats under her arm, swipe a dozen other knick-knacks from the room, and simply leave.
Later, she’d congratulate herself on undertaking such self-improvement. After all, her haul this time would be a far cry better than a few crumbs of bread.
But her feet were fixed to the floor. She tightened her hands, squeezing the porcelain until it ground against her bones.
Astley had paused. A shadowy figure, he turned slowly. “Kind?” he asked, his voice made of shadow also. “Is that what I’ve been?”
Then he laughed, an abyss of a sound that stroked up her spine.
“Would you like to know why I hired you, Miss Post?”
Her pulse quickened as he advanced toward her, drifting from the darkness with a languor that had her shifting the cats, rubbing her fingers over the porcelain as she wished for an object that was bigger, sharper.
Why had she asked?
She should run. Run. Run.
But he stopped before she could move, sucking in his breath and studying her face. His eyes caught and deflected moonlight as they fell to her throat, her shoulders, her chest, her hands.
Then he glanced away, something short of a smile twisting his lips.
“I hired you,” he continued softly, “because your poverty enchanted me.”
He began to walk toward her again, but still she didn’t run. Like the moonlight, she was caught by his gaze, her fear suspended between each heartbeat. It was difficult to be afraid when, for a moment, he’d looked at her as if she was the dangerous one.
“I fell in fascination with the repulsiveness of your stench, the despair of your filth, and the misery of your disfigurement.”
She’d never been insulted so gently. As before, he captured her fist in his hand, but this time he collected the cat from her grasp. Her skin prickled, and she had to suppress the impulse to seize his fingers and pry it away.
“I hired you because you needed this position more than I needed a maid—not because I’m altruistic, but because I was tempted by the manifestation of such vulnerability.”
He gathered the second cat from her, closed both figurines in his hand.
“I could have hired either of the two women who answered the ad before you, each of whom Mrs. Dunworth approved. For your lack of experience, I could have hired a rag picker or watercress woman. But you—you, Miss Post—I fed and clothed and sheltered, suffered the disease of your lice, for no reason except that when you removed your bonnet, I saw that I could manipulate you.”
He leaned forward, and Miranda flinched at his nearness: at the breadth of his shoulders blocking her view of the door, at the wall of his chest inches from hers, at the skin-warmed scent of cloves and bergamot as he bent to her ear.
Her breaths shuddered loud into the space between them as he whispered: “So you see, I’m not very kind at all. But don’t fret, Miss Post. I’ve decided I’m not yet finished exploiting you for my pleasure.”
Then, with a flick of his wrist, he tossed the cats aside, the porcelain shattering as they struck the floor.