Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Witching Hour - Wiggons' School for Elegant Young Ladies (Book 3)

The Witching Hour - 
Book Three of The Wiggons' School for Elegant Young Ladies

Gabriel Westbrook has spent his adult life building a wicked reputation to hide his true identity as an agent for the Crown. When his latest assignment brings him to Cornwall to capture French spies, nothing has prepared him for three meddlesome schoolgirls at the neighboring Wiggons’ School for Elegant Young Ladies who have decided that his secretive ways must mean he’s a witch. And nothing has prepared him for the feelings he begins to develop for the trio’s young teacher who may not be who she says she is.

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If he never went so farre as is before mentioned, yet for certaine he met with the Devill,
and cheated him of his Booke, wherein were written all the Witches names in England,
and if he looks on any Witch, he can tell by her countenance what she is; so by this,
he helpe is from the Devill.

The Discovery of Witches by Matthew Hopkins, Witch-finder

Cornwall, England, 1803

“I understand that your sisters attend the same school as my daughter.”
Gabriel Westbrook narrowed his eyes on the Marquess of Hopkins, waiting to hear why he’d really been called to the man’s home in Cornwall. Gabe didn’t have the time or the patience to take tea with a Member of Parliament, who was also attached to the Home Office, and he wasn’t sure exactly why he was here, but he was certain it had nothing to do with Wiggons’ School for Elegant Young Ladies. However, he was less than a day’s ride from the school, and Gabe would visit on his way back to London. It had been too long since he’d visited with Olivia and Victoria.
“Why am I here?” Gabe asked instead of answering the question.
“How do you feel about smuggling?”
Now Hopkins had his attention. “It would depend on what is being smuggled.”
He offered a slight smile. “I have a man who regularly crosses from France to Cornwall. He’s received information that Napoleon is intending to send spies into England.”
“Such reports are received almost daily. Why is this different from the others?”
“This, um, smuggler, has been asked to find someone who might be sympathetic to the French. With so many émigrés from the Revolution, they are convinced someone in England could offer safe passage and shelter.”
“Does this man not have other contacts?”
“He regularly delivers his shipments to an estate further up the coast but cannot use that location as my friend does not want them to realize that he works for us.”
This surprised Gabe. “You know of a smuggler and place that regularly receives smuggled items and you’ve done nothing?”
“It is in our best interest to allow them to continue as they have in the past and into the future, as it may serve us well one day.” Hopkins shrugged. “As for the smuggler, he’s allowed to continue because along with brandy and lace, he brings information.”
This wasn’t the first time the government had turned a blind eye to illegal activity because it may benefit them in the future. Nor was it the first time men operated outside of the law for the good of England.
“You won’t even need to assume a new identity. Fortunately for us, your family, that history, and your reputation will serve perfectly.”
“As my mother was also French, you assume they will believe me to be that person?” It was no secret that his father, the Earl of Norbright, had fallen in love with Gabe’s mother when he visited Paris on holiday. He was only twenty and she was older by three years, and they married soon after meeting. Gabe’s grandparents were incensed when Father returned with his new bride, but there was little they could do. They never did love, nor even like, their daughter-in-law, who soon found other gentlemen she liked, and loved, as well as her husband. Gabe wasn’t even sure his father actually fathered him or his younger siblings. The only child anyone was certain belonged to Norbright was Peter, his older brother and only because he was born seven months after the two had wed, and probably had much to do with why they did wed so quickly.
His father always treated Gabe with cold disdain, rarely speaking to him, but despite his doubts of legitimacy, continued to claim him as a son. However, his father prayed daily that Peter had a long, healthy life and produced enough heirs so that Gabe becoming heir would never be an issue. This resulted in Gabe being much closer to his mother, who he loved dearly. She claimed that no other man fathered him, but she could not make the same claim as to his younger sisters. At first Gabe was too young to understand, but as he grew older and saw how horribly his mother was treated by his father, his older brother, and all of their relations, he began to understand why she found comfort and love in the arms of other gentlemen.
Father may not have liked his wife, but he didn’t appreciate being a cuckold either. In a bitter rage one evening, Father threw Mother down the stairs, breaking her neck, then he shot himself, creating a larger scandal than the family had ever suffered before. Peter, the bloody arse, became earl and kicked Gabe off the estate, along with his younger sisters because he wasn’t going to support the bastards of a whore.
The one thing that Gabe had never understood, however, was why their father would take his own life, unless he feared prison and execution for murder.
“Also your hatred for your older brother and love for your mother is well known, which does serve us in this respect” Hopkins grinned slightly. “As does your reputation as a gambler, fighter, Lothario, and drunk.”
The only truth in that statement was that he did hate his brother and loved his mother. The rest was a ruse he and his friends created until they were thought to be some of the most disreputable gentlemen of society. The Devils of Dalston, as they were called, were rumored to enjoy anything from orgies and opium to witchcraft and devil worship in the home they’d take in Dalston. None of it was true, of course, but it helped keep the ton at a distance.
Though, he thought with a smile, he had taken more pleasure than he should have when he ordered eight matching, black hooded robes at the beginning of last Season. Once the rumors spread and whispers of virgin sacrifices made the rounds, few innocent debutants or their mothers glanced in Gabe’s or his friends’ direction.
“What would you like me to do?” Gabe needed no further details. His mission was to protect England in any manner required or requested and defeat Napoleon with every means possible.
“There is a manor in Kirksbury. It has already been transferred to your name.”
This surprised him, and he certainly could not object to the location. He’d be near his younger sisters as the Wiggons’ School for Elegant Young Ladies was located outside of the village. “You are rather confident that I’d accept the assignment.”
Hopkins smiled slowly. “It is December. You are estranged from your family, save your younger sisters, and you can’t very well bring them back to your bachelor rooms in St. James, or what has been described as a den of sin in Dalston.” He chuckled and shook his head, which meant Hopkins knew very well the purpose of that house. “We have no idea how long this assignment will be. You’ll be settled in one place for the time being, and close to your sisters, which is why I requested you for the assignment.”
It would be good to be near Olivia and Victoria again. After all, it was up to him to see to their care, and in a few years, they would be old enough to enter Society. The family reputation may be all but destroyed, but Gabe intended to do everything in his power to see that they were presented, settled, and happy despite what their brother thought the two innocent girls deserved.
“I’ll be glad to take the assignment, Lord Hopkins, and thank you for the opportunity.” It may just be the easiest and most relaxing assignment he’d been given since leaving Oxford, and nobody would question him being in the area because, despite his reputation, his devotion to his sisters had never been brought into question.

 Claudia Morris stood in the center of the parlor of the Wiggons’ School for Elegant Young Ladies and stared at the troublesome trio gathered on the settee before her. These three, Rosemary Fairview, Eliza Weston, and Lady Sophia Trent, were forever insinuating themselves into circumstances in which they did not belong. It fairly gave Claudia heart palpations when she thought of the many precarious situations these girls had gotten themselves into.
They fidgeted, waiting for her to speak, but Claudia was too angry at the moment. Instead, she stared at them and hoped they felt the weight of her disappointment while she tried to figure out what to do about them.
First, they had believed that Lord Atwood was a vampire. Of course, the gentleman did only leave his house at midnight, and the only place he visited was his wife’s grave, so that was rather odd. If he only did it on occasion, perhaps the girls would not have noticed, but he did so nightly. It was the residents in the town that began to whisper about him being a vampire and then it didn’t help when the girls read Wake Not the Dead by Johann Ludwig Tieck, a story about a man who lost his beloved wife and used a spell to bring her back from the dead, except she wasn’t the same person as she’d been before, but a vampire. At one point, they were convinced that Atwood had been successful in raising his wife, and the girls had come up with a way to dispose of her. Of course, Atwood was not a vampire but suffered from an injury he received in battle, which caused him a great deal of pain whenever he was in the sun, so he slept much of the day and went out at night. Nor did he raise his wife from the dead.
However, all of the vampire nonsense did result on Lord Atwood falling in love with Tess Crawford, a teacher of the Wiggons’ School, and the two of them were quite happy living at Atwood Manor, having married nearly a year ago.
Perhaps if the trio had stopped there, this would not be such an issue, but no sooner had the rumors of Atwood being a vampire been put to rest when rumors of the Kissing Ghost began to emerge. Apparently, there was a gentleman who rode the roads in England who stopped carriages and always kissed a woman before leaving again. The troublesome trio had gotten it into their heads that the Kissing Ghost was actually a ghost, which Claudia blamed on their fascination with Anne Radcliffe novels. The girls determined that the ghost had died too soon and was searching for his love to spend eternity with. They would have probably eventually forgotten about the rider had he not stopped their carriage one evening on the way back to the school and kissed a now former teacher, Natalie Pritchard.
For once, the girls had been somewhat accurate, though Anton Kazakov was not a ghost in the true sense of the word, but a very human gentleman who was looking for his wife, who just happened to be Natalie. Though, at the time, he wasn’t searching for her to spend all of eternity with, but for revenge, because he believed she had betrayed him. So when she was kidnapped, of course the girls assumed she’d be gone from this world forever.
The two were now very happy, and very much alive, living at Creighton Manor.
Unfortunately, the imaginations of the three had not rested, and now they were focused on her, and they had been snooping around the property of Lord and Lady Severen, who had recently arrived to the area. Perhaps the girls would have ignored the couple had they not recognized Claudia and almost called her by the name she’d been given at birth. If she didn’t quell the curiosity of the trio on one subject, which happened to be her, there would be no rest and constant disruption with the school, their education, and her life.
Even though she and the other teachers had kept a closer eye on them than they ever had in the past, the three had still managed to sneak away to try and learn what they could of Lord and Lady Severen. The fault did not lie with the newer teachers, who had been unprepared for students such as these three but with Eliza and her insatiable curiosity and imagination, and Rosemary, who followed where she led, and Sophia, who lacked the maturity to stop them, even though she tried often enough.
Well, enough was enough. “I am one of your teachers, an adult, and you are students,” she began in a firm tone. “I value my privacy, as do my former and fellow instructors, yet none of you can manage to stay out of their lives. My past is not your concern, and your snooping around the home of Lord and Lady Severen is beyond the pale, and it must stop now.” She slammed her hand down on a table for good measure, startling all three of them.
“They are here to live quietly and peacefully.” She locked her hands together behind her back and began to pace as she lectured. “Unfortunately, I know better than to simply believe that telling you to leave well enough alone is enough.” With a deep sigh she turned and faced them. “I understand that you are curious as to my relationship to them, even though it is none of your concern.”
Rosemary and Eliza nodded their heads, curls bouncing and bobbing against their shoulders. Sophia at least appeared contrite for having been caught sneaking around the Severen’s home once again.
“I tell you this so that you can concentrate on your studies and not on my past,” Claudia continued.  “And, so you will cease in your questioning and searching.”  She pinned Eliza with a look, the instigator of most of the trouble in which the three found themselves.
Claudia took a deep breath. “I was born Claudette Marseau.”
There was a gasp.
“Before you begin wondering about the other teachers, I am the only one left who changed her name.”
When Claudia was the same age as these three, her friends were Natasha Petrov and Theresa Ford-Creigh, and for four years they were also students of Wiggons’ School for Elegant Young Ladies. Claudia never dreamed that after returning home at the end of their education that they would one day be forced to change their identities and return to the school to teach alongside Claudia. Natasha Petrov became Natalie Pritchard and Theresa Ford-Creigh became Tess Crawford.
The three slumped as if disappointed.
“My parents were French aristocracy, and I had two older brothers, Louis and Christophe. While my parents enjoyed life at court, my brothers and I were sent away to school.” Her throat tightened. She hadn’t expected how difficult this would be to speak of.  “When the Terror came, I was one of a handful of students remaining at my school. Up until that time, my parents thought it safer if I were in the country and away from Versailles and later Paris.”
The students straightened and widened their eyes in surprise.
Claudia turned to look out the window. Her chest had grown tight at the memories, and she did not want to reveal her inner struggles, her inner pain, to these three. “My mother and her family were arrested while my father was away.” She swallowed, pushing her tears at bay. “He could not be located, and my mother was taken to the guillotine.”
“You do not have to tell us anything, Miss Morris.” Sophia’s cornflower blue eyes filled with tears. Of the three, Sophia was the most reasonable, levelheaded, and sensitive.
Claudia turned just in time to see Eliza shoot Sophia a glance that begged her to be quiet. Of course, Eliza, more than the other two, would be intrigued and want every last detail.
It was because of Eliza that Claudia knew she had to tell them her past. “There were six students, all children of aristocratic parents who had already been arrested, and none of us could return home. Lady Severen was our teacher, though she was Mademoiselle Déville at the time. She managed to keep us safe and hidden even though there were warrants for our arrest because of our birth and families. With the help of Lord Severen, they managed to get us out of France and to England.”
What they did not need to know was that Lord Severen, a spy for England, had been sent by her father to find her. Lord Severen had not anticipated being saddled with a young teacher and five other students, but he couldn’t leave them behind to fend for themselves and save Claudia alone. Nor did she tell them that it was her father and brothers who manned the boat that gave them all safe passage. The less details, the fewer the questions. Besides, her father, Pierre Marseau, was still a hunted man. First it had been by the French because of his birth and later because it was learned he was helping aristocrats escape France. Now it was the English because his cargo had changed from smuggled people to fine wines, fabric, and whatever else was profitable to bring into the country behind the backs of the custom officers.
“I ended up at the school where Mrs. Wiggons took me in and gave me an education. We changed my name so that I could begin anew, and I did what I could to relieve myself of any accent so that there were no further questions about the little French orphan. When the other students left to take their places in society, I remained and assisted with the language lessons and soon became a teacher myself.”
“What of your father?” Rosemary asked.
“Or your brothers?” Eliza added.
Claudia bit her upper lip before she continued.  “They were never arrested, but they disappeared.” It was not all a lie. She knew where they were most of the time, but it was impossible for her to return to France because they no longer had a home, and her father and brothers lived on their brigantine. The ship that once carried aristocrats from France now brought contraband such as lace and brandy to Cornwall.
As a girl, she used to see them in the early morning hours as they rowed to shore. She, along with her two closest friends at the school, Tess and Natalie, often rose before the sun to watch for boats. Claudia never told her friends that she was looking for her family. Those two simply thought it a game to see if they could spot smugglers amongst the early morning fishermen. Mrs. Wiggons had allowed her to slip away the times she did see her father’s boat and saw his lantern signal. They met in the cave beneath Creighton Abbey, not that she ever told anyone. Not even when she was older.
Claudia cleared her throat and focused back on her students. “So, you now know my story and why Lord and Lady Severen began to call me Claudette. There is no grand mystery, nor am I trying to hide a past. Mrs. Wiggons simply wished for me to have a new start and to try and put the nightmare of the Terror behind me.” She narrowed her eyes on the girls. “Lord and Lady Severen wish to live in peace, and you will allow them to do so.”
“You’ve been at this school the entire time? Since you were a girl?” Rosemary asked.
 “Why was an English Lord in France during the Revolution?” Eliza asked.
“He was young and had no intention of allowing the difficulties in France to deter him from having his grand tour.” It was the story Severen himself told often enough of how he met his wife.
“It sounds rather boring to me,” Eliza said after a moment.
It was supposed to, Claudia reminded herself. They didn’t know the real reason Lord Severen decided to settle in the area or why they were to have a new neighbor. Had Lord Hopkins not confided in her during his last visit, she’d not be telling these three anything of her personal life now, but if she didn’t convince them to cease their intrusions into the lives of others, matters could become very precarious for all involved.

“Harrington Manor has been purchased,” Eliza announced as she and Rosemary ran into the room they shared with Sophia.
“How do you know?” Sophia glanced up from her reading assignment.
“We may have spied a handsome blonde gentleman arrive on horseback shortly before a number of wagons and carriages pulled into the drive.” She grinned.
“The only way you could have spied such a thing was if you were away from the school,” Sophia eyed her two friends with suspicion. Not four hours ago they’d been lectured on minding their own business and reminded to remain on school property. Again. “The back of the manor faces the cliffs, just as the school. You would have had to be on the road and away from here to have seen any and all arrivals.”
“He is our brother, and you shan’t pester him as you do everyone else in the area,” Lady Olivia Westbrook informed the three as she stepped into the room.
“And we plan to warn him about you as well,” Lady Victoria pinned Eliza with a determined look and nod of her chin.
Ladies Olivia and Victoria had come to the school almost two years earlier. They were sixteen-years-old and the same age as Sophia and her friends. The twins had always been quiet, preferring each other’s company to that of the other girls in the school, and Sophia had never gotten to know them. Not that she hadn’t tried, but they were so painfully shy when they arrived that she’d eventually given up. This was the most she’d ever heard either of them talk, and she was rather surprised by their determination.
Eliza, not to be deterred, leaned forward. “The earl?” she asked with excitement.
Both girls frowned.
“No,” Oliva answered. “Gabriel.”
The girls were dressed in thick cloaks and carrying their muffs. “Are you going out?” Sophia asked.
“We are paying a call on our brother,” Lady Victoria answered with superiority.
“We are not supposed to the leave the grounds unescorted or without permission,” Eliza reminded them with authority she did not possess.
Sophia nearly snorted. Eliza and Rosemary had just done exactly what they warned the sisters of not doing. And, they did so on nearly a daily basis.
“Miss Morris is accompanying us.”
“Will you be living with him?” Rosemary asked out of curiosity.
“We shall see.” Lady Olivia sniffed and lifted her nose as the girls left the chamber. Eliza followed them and looked out into the corridor before she returned and closed the door behind her and turned to Rosemary and Sophia with a grin.
“What?” Sophia ask slowly. Whenever Eliza at that mischievous gleam in her eyes,  it usually led to something that would land the three of them in trouble, such as being caught at Lord and Lady Severen’s this morning. Sophia should have just let Eliza and Rosemary go off on their own, but she rarely stayed back because someone who was reasonable needed to be present to talk them out of truly dangerous adventures. Not that it had always worked in the past.
“Lord Gabriel Westbrook has the wickedest reputation, and he’s quite handsome too.”
“We are not going to bother him,” Sophia warned.
“For once I agree with you.” Eliza plopped onto the bed and bounced in her excitement. “A year from now we will be at our homes preparing for our first Season. I have no intention of my reputation being sullied by having my name associated with that of the Honorable Gabriel Westbrook.”
Rosemary leaned in, her dark brown eyes bright with excitement. “Is he so terribly wicked?”
Sophia blew out a sigh. Gossip was never good and could do a great deal of harm, but this was better than Eliza planning a visit to spy on Mr. Westbrook.
“He’s made a fortune gambling, which is how he probably managed to purchase Harrington Manor since his father left him nothing, nor does he even receive quarterly’s from his brother.”
Rosemary gasped. “Why ever not?”
Eliza leaned in. “They say his father isn’t his father.” She nodded knowingly. “The same is said for Ladies Olivia and Victoria, by the way.”
Rosemary gasped again. “They were born on the wrong side of the blanket?”
“It’s none of our concern,” Sophia interrupted. The sisters already had a difficult life given how they’d lost their parents. She would not sit by while Eliza further sullied their name. The two girls were innocent of any shame cast upon their family. Besides, everyone knew of the rumors, and it wasn’t necessary to discuss them.
The gossip sheets from London had become required reading in order to prepare for their coming out, as a lesson that if they did not follow the strict dictates of society, their names may one day be printed along with a scandalous story. Sophia secretly believed the reading the of the gossip sheets was to deter Eliza, more than the others, from her impetuous behavior. “Their father always claimed the relation, and they are simply rumors because the marriage between Lord and Lady Norbright was so volatile.”
“They say Lady Norbright had many lovers and that Mr. Gabriel Westbrook is the only person to surpass the number his mother once enjoyed.”
“How could you possibly know such a thing?” Sophia was fairly certain she would have remembered reading that bit of gossip.
Eliza just shrugged and gave them a sly smile.
There is no way she knew anything more than anyone else.
“He’s fought duels and appeared intoxicated in the middle of Hyde Park where he relieved himself in the bushes for all to see.”
Sophia did recall reading that bit of news.
“Some say that he’s even in league with the devil.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “He never loses at the gaming tables, and he has walked away from duels without even a scratch. No matter what he does, he lands on his feet, like a cat with nine lives.” Eliza’s eyes went wide as she warmed to the topic. “The same is said of his friends, the Devils of Dalston--eight gentlemen who share a private residence for what people can only assume are the most depraved activities since no one ever speaks of what happens there.”
“They share a residence?” Rosemary asked.
“None of them live there, but secret gatherings haven taken place,” Eliza assured her as if she knew for certain exactly what did take place, which was impossible to know, of course.
“They can’t be that secret since you seem to know about them,” Sophia pointed out.
Eliza ignored her and leaned closer to Rosemary, who was always willing to hear her tales. “Some believe they are practicing the black arts. Mr. Westbrook requested his tailor make eight black robes and an emblem resembling a pentagram was designed into the pattern.”
Leave it to Eliza to exaggerate something that might be quite innocent, though Sophia had read about the robes and wondered what they were about. It was all quite ridiculous as far as she was concerned.
“Why would they need those?” whispered Rosemary, who hung on every word Eliza uttered.
“Witchcraft, of course.”                                                                                        
Sophia did roll her eyes this time. If the gentlemen were practicing witchcraft, surely they would have been arrested by now. It was a crime not taken lightly in England. Though nobody had been executed in nearly a century, witches were still jailed.
There were several more stories surrounding Gabriel Westbrook, and Sophia dearly hoped Eliza didn’t spend the rest of the afternoon regaling her and Rosemary with each and every one of them. But one thing was true, he and his friends had some of the wickedest reputations. Eight gentlemen who were wealthy, attached to titles, handsome, and dangerous to the virtue of any woman they happened to meet.
Oh dear, and Miss Morris was about to step into the lion’s den. Hopefully someone warned her, or she at least remembered all of the horrid things she had read so that she might protect herself.

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