Book 2 of the Holy Poison Series
This is the story of Rachel, the beautiful mistress of Lord Richard Summerville, the woman who loves him enough to risk a charge of treason to protect his wife.
But Rachel has a tragic story of her own to tell as all is not as it seems. A childhood horror ruined Rachel's life forever and Richard Summerville's love for her is to be her salvation.
Were anyone to ask me about my childhood, I would have to reply that I did not have one, at least not one that I can remember. I was born Lady Rachel Stewart, the child of an impoverished earl, a man who had gambled and drunk away his entire fortune, and that of his three wives, the last of which was my mother. When I came along there was little left and by the time I was ten, there was nothing.
I recall lying in bed at night and hearing the quarrel about money, Father telling Mother that he had found a way to pay off all his debts and have a lot left over, her protesting, begging him not to do it. I had no notion of what this was all about, and I did not want to know, so I buried my head beneath the covers and stopped up my ears before the blows started falling, before my father got his whip with which to persuade her that he was right.
All I remember of my father is that I feared him. He had never hurt me as such; he never paid me that much attention, but he was violent toward my mother on a daily basis. Whatever went wrong, it was her fault and she took the punishment for it. I did not know then, of course, that the beatings she took were often caused by her defence of me; to keep him away from me she had put herself in the way.
Children never know these things. They just take it for granted that this is how things are and I probably assumed that this was the way things were in every family.
All I knew was that we were all safer if I kept out of his way. If I made him angry, my mother would be hurt. He had no interest in me, or so I believed, and that suited me well.
I was completely innocent then, knowing nothing of the world or even how babies were born. I was just a child and things would not have been spoken about in front of me, not even if Mother had anyone to talk to.
She only had me and the servants, but nothing could be confided to them. They knew precisely what went on, as servants always do, but they feared my father as much as my mother and I did.
My earliest memory is that of my tenth birthday, of watching my father fill himself full of strong wine and listening to my mother’s weeping from her bedchamber. I had no idea why she was crying more than usual, but a huge carriage arrived early in the morning and made her wails even worse. It was as if the very sight of that carriage hurt her somehow.
The gentleman who stepped out of the carriage was old, not only by my own standards but elderly by the standards of the time. He was, in fact, my father’s age with similar grey hair and lined face, although without the bloated face and body that my father had acquired through drink.
His clothing declared him to be wealthy. He wore a doublet of red satin, with rich embroidery and encrusted jewels. His hose was silk and on his gnarled fingers he wore many rings, too many for simple decoration and good taste. He could have done a lot of damage with those rings, should anyone challenge him.
I was watching from the gallery when he entered, when he strode passed the servant who stepped forward to show him in to see my father, and into the great hall itself. If I had known then that this man was to be the cause of all the misery to come in my life, I would have run away and hid somewhere, never come out of my hiding place.
But I did not know, nor could I guess at the motive for his visit. I was too young then to even imagine what he might want, too young to know that there was anything more evil than my father and his whip.
“Well,” the stranger demanded. “I have the money. Have you decided yet? I cannot wait forever.”
He threw a velvet purse down on the table and my father took it and opened it up to look inside, while his eyes grew wide and greedy.
“It is all there,” the stranger said. “One thousand gold pieces as we agreed, as well as all your debts paid.” He watched my father for a few seconds, then added with a smirk of satisfaction: “Not bad for a loan of one day. She had better be worth it.”
My father nodded, then got up and came to the bottom of the stairs, calling my name.
“Rachel,” he called. “I have a special birthday present for you. Come down here.”
I moved slowly down the stairs, not wanting to trip and disgrace myself, but also because I did not feel very safe in the company of this man. I had never felt safe in the company of my father, but that was because he got drunk and became violent. There was something else about this man that made me afraid, although I could not have said what. I was too young then to know; I would know now.
“This is Mr Carter, my dear,” my father went on. “He is a friend and he wants to take you out for the day to celebrate your birthday. Is that not good of him?”
I remember shaking my head in mute refusal. I did not want to go with him and even my ten year old mind could not fathom why this stranger might want to take me out. Perhaps he had no children of his own, I tried to tell myself, but even as I thought it, something told me that was not the reason.
I heard my mother crying from the top of the stairs.
“No! You cannot take her!”
My father climbed the stairs then, faster than I thought possible in an old man so unfit. I turned to look, turned in time to see him strike my mother across the face, hard, tearing her cheek with his ring. It was not the first time I had witnessed that particular scene and I did not know then that it would be the last, but on this occasion that was all I saw, because Mr Carter had grabbed my arm and was dragging me to his waiting carriage.
I tried to pull away, but I was weak and this man was strong, even for his age. The coachman took no notice of my screams or my pleas for help; they went unheeded, both by him and by my father’s own servants.
Mr Carter lifted me up and pushed me inside, then climbed in beside me and slammed the door shut. I could still hear my mother’s screams but I was unsure whether she was crying for me or from the beating my father was giving her.
I tried to push myself as far into the corner of the seat as I could while the man ordered his coachman to drive on. Then he turned to me and smiled; it was not a welcoming, friendly smile, but one I could not interpret. Now I know it was a smile of lust, but then I had never before seen any such smile directed at me.
“Your father told no lie,” Mr Carter said. “You are beautiful. Even more beautiful up close than when I first saw you in the street. You will be the most beautiful little girl we have ever entertained.”
I had been told before that I was beautiful, and I had always been quite pleased. I had no way of knowing that those same words coming from this man would warp my emotions every time I heard them for the rest of my life.
Mr Carter’s coachman returned me to my father’s house late that night. He had to climb down and carry me inside because I could not walk and I cannot remember when I have ever been in so much pain. I remember him handing me over to a manservant of my father’s who carried me upstairs to my bedchamber, and every step he took brought further agony.
I have tried all my life to blot out the events of that long and painful day, tried to forget Mr Carter and his friend who took turns to rape me, then thought themselves generous when they produced a sumptuous meal at midday and were angry that I could not eat. The friend had a long and deep T shaped scar down the side of his face that made him look like a monster out of a fairy tale. He had a skinny body that made his head look too big, and that made him even more of an ogre to my ten year old imagination. That scar imprinted itself on my nightmares for many years to come.
I am talking now from the perspective of an experienced woman, not the child I was. I did not know what was happening, only that it hurt badly and that it was wrong and embarrassing. That was not the way I should have learned that men are built differently from women, but that was my father’s special birthday present.
The more I struggled, the more the two men laughed at my helplessness and I overheard them telling each other that I had been worth every penny that I had cost.
I was terrified by this talk, as it seemed to me that my father must have sold me to them and that I would have to spend all my days like this one. Despite the terrible pain I was in, I was so relieved to be delivered back to my home, I was sobbing with it.
I had no nurse or governess. I had once, but that was before my father had squandered all his money and could afford such a thing. Any education or care that I received was from my mother and that night she was there at my bedside, carefully removing what was left of my clothing.
She moved slowly and I knew even at that age that it was because she was also in pain. She moved with one arm held to her ribs, the other being the only one she could use. I had witnessed this before; it was nothing new. Her bruises were angry and her eye was swollen shut, yet still she tended to my wounds that were bleeding heavily.
“Enough is enough,” she said quietly. “I thought I could not suffer any more at his hands, but what he has done this day has been too much. Tomorrow we leave.”
I sat up as best I could and leaned against the pillows.
“Leave?” I asked. “Where will we go? We have nowhere to go, do we?”
“We will go to my brother,” she replied regretfully.
“Your brother? I did not know you had a brother.”
“We have not spoken for many years,” she said quietly. “Not since long before I married. My father turned him out; he did not approve of the woman he married and would have nothing more to do with him. But my father died before he had time to change his will, so Stephen still inherited the bulk of his fortune.”
“But you know where he is?” I asked.
"He inherited my father's house, the one I grew up in. I assume he is still there, at least I pray so. Sleep now,” she said, putting her hand gently on my forehead. “We will leave in the morning and go to London to find your uncle.”
I slept fitfully for a few short hours, my dreams filled with images from the day. I relived every horrifying moment and when I woke in the dark, cold room, I forced myself to stay awake, wondering if I would ever sleep again.
I was also concerned about how we would escape the house without my father stopping us. I could not bear the thought of my mother receiving another severe beating at his hands and I wished I were grown up and able to defend her. She was too weak now; I did not think she would survive.
I need not have worried as the next day there was no sign of my father. I had no idea where he could be, as his usual habit was to start drinking before breakfast. It was unlikely that he would have gone out riding or even walking, and besides it was pouring with rain. He was a man who liked his comforts.
When I asked my mother she only told me that we were in luck and to hurry before he came back. I needed no more prompting than that.
I remember little about the journey to London except that I was terrified every time we had to stop that my father would appear out of nowhere and order us home.
The carriage was damp and cold and we kept the blinds down to keep out the rain. Every bump in the road broad me fresh agony and I cuddle against my mother for comfort. It was my father’s carriage and we were driven by his own coachman; I remember being surprised about this and that my mother handed over her emerald necklace to him before we boarded the coach. I realise now that was his payment for taking us and for keeping quiet about it but then I was just scared that he would tell.
By the time we arrived at my uncle’s house, I was in a lot more pain from the day before and I noticed that my mother was having difficulty breathing. It took her a long time to climb down from the carriage, each step was agony and left her with even less breath.
She stood still and looked up at the house before carefully moving forward.
"This is where I grew up," she said softly. "This was my father's house."
I did not reply as I was only surprised that she was telling me this much. She never normally spoke about her past or anything that had led to her marriage to my father, who was many years older than her.
I know now that she was forced into a marriage with him because he was titled and her family were wealthy commoners. There was nothing unusual about this arrangement, that an impoverished aristocrat would trade his title for a rich dowry and all a woman could do was pray for a kind man. My mother's prayers had gone unheeded.
My uncle did not seem pleased to see his sister after so many years. When first he opened the door he just stood and stared at us, as though he had no idea who we were. My mother was leaning against the porch pillar, unable to stand without support, and I wanted to scream at him to let us in. Even a stranger would have let us in, seeing the state of us. He took us in at last, gave us refreshments and when he realised how bad was our condition, sent for a physician.
My uncle assigned us bedchambers, just in time as it happens. My mother collapsed in the hallway outside and he scooped her up in his arms and laid her on the bed.
“Stay with her,” Uncle Stephen told me. “I have no idea what has happened to you two, but it does not look good. She can hardly breathe and you are having difficulty walking. And there is blood on your skirt.”
I felt myself blushing a deep red and my cheeks grew hot and uncomfortable. Why did he have to say that, even if it were true? I fled from the room and into the chamber he had given to me.
“Forgive me,” he said following me. “I did not mean to cause you any distress, but I do need to know what has happened. I need to be able to tell the physician when he arrives.”
I just hid under the covers and shook my head furiously.
The physician arrived shortly after and examined my mother first, then came in to me. You would have thought that after my ordeal I would find nothing else embarrassing, but this man prodding and poking was excruciatingly shaming as well as painful. And I was sure I had done something for which I was to blame, I was sure that either my uncle or the doctor would shout at me, tell me I had been wicked.
He did not speak to me, not even to ask what had happened, but just shook his head mournfully and returned to the adjoining room where my mother lie unconscious.
I had crept out of bed with great difficulty and was listening from the adjoining chamber.
“I am sorry, Mr Jameson,” he told my uncle. “I do not believe that your sister will live. She is bleeding internally and there is nothing I can do."
I felt the tears spill out over my face. My mother was going to die and I would have no one. What would happen to me? Uncle Stephen would have to send me back to my father, would he not? Then what would happen when he ran out of money? What would happen when he lost his temper and had no one else on whom to use his whip.
I suddenly felt that Mother was the lucky one. I would certainly rather be dead than return to my father.
“Try whatever you can,” Uncle Stephen was telling the doctor. “What of my niece?”
“Your little niece has been horrifically abused, Sir,” the physician said in a shocked voice. “I have never in my life seen anything like it. Indeed, I am deeply shocked.”
“Abused?” Uncle Stephen asked with a frown. “What does that mean exactly? What sort of abuse? My sister has been abused, that is obvious.”
“Your sister, Sir, has been badly beaten but the little girl has been raped, repeatedly I would say. She has extensive injuries, bruises and tearing, that will likely heal up partially, if not completely, but I have to tell you that the chances of her ever being a mother are very remote.”
Raped? That was the first time in my life I had heard that word and I had no real idea of what it meant even then.
The doctor stopped talking then rubbed his chin reflectively. “How did this happen, Sir?”
Uncle Stephen looked outraged.
“I wish I knew,” he replied. “They arrived this morning. I have not seen my sister in many years and my niece not at all. This is obviously why they were running away.”
“He sold me,” I said in a shaky voice from the doorway, causing both men to turn around and look at me.
“Sold you?” Uncle Stephen asked. “Who? Who would do such a thing?”
“My father,” I replied, realising that I had at last summoned up the courage to speak of it. “He took one thousand pieces of gold from a man and that man took me away and kept me all day yesterday. He and his friend. There was something said about clearing his debts as well.”
That was the first glimmer of pity or compassion I had seen from my uncle. He had obviously not wanted to receive us into his household, but now he stepped forward and gathered me into his arms. I flinched, from pain and from fear. I did not want him to touch me.
“Forgive me, little one,” he said quietly releasing his hold. “You can stay here as long as you wish, you and your mother.”
“Not my mother,” I replied. “She is dying. Will you send me back to my father?"
"No!" My uncle cried out at once. "Whatever it costs me, you will never have to see him again. I promise you."
I retreated into my bedchamber then and climbed under the covers to weep for my lost mother and for my lost innocence.