May 30, 1812, Diphill Green
Robert Royles’s broad shoulders filled the doorway of one of the unused outer buildings as he stared down at the sinuous length of rope that lay on the rough planked floor. He nudged the frayed end with his left boot, squinting into the shadowed interior.
“Did you charm the rats into chewing through the rope, Catherine?” he asked, amused by the thought.
The question was met with silence.
His fifteen-year-old cousin was resourceful for a female. The burning scratches on his neck and chest were proof that it was unwise to underestimate her.
“Forgive me for not returning sooner,” he continued as if she were standing before him. “Father and Mother have departed for the Owtrams. I assured them that I would look after you in their absence.”
His mouth tightened at her stubbornness. “Naturally, Mr. Owtram will insist that they remain under his roof. I do not expect we’ll see them for the better part of the week. Do you not agree?”
“Come now, Catherine. Don’t be pigheaded about this,” he cajoled, softening his voice as his fingers curled into fists. “Did you really believe Mother would take your side when she learned about us? The worst is over, and now we are alone. I’ve even dismissed the servants for the evening. If you give me your word that you’ll behave, I’ll free you and we can return to the house. A soft mattress might improve your disposition toward me.”
Robert shifted his stance and sighed. “Fine,” he said tersely. “We’ll do this the hard way.”
The ungrateful wench deserved no consideration from him anyway. Truth be told, he liked it best when she fought him. He crouched down and seized the length of rope. She would be more cooperative when he trussed her up. Perhaps he should remind her of her lowly position in their family before he carried her back to the house. He had days to play with his lovely cousin, and he did not intend to waste an hour.
Robert tugged on the rope, and, just as he thought, the girl was no longer tethered to it. He could not fathom how she had managed it. The iron shackled to her wrists, however, was another matter entirely. Unless his ears deceived him, he heard a soft clink of metal from the left corner of the musty interior. The poor girl was probably cowering in the filth. Perhaps he should shove her into one of the horse troughs before he touched her again. He was not one to fuss about cleanliness, but his mother had four days ago locked her rebellious adoptive daughter in one of the old buildings the family had once used for storage. Her scent would not sweeten during her incarceration.
Twisting the rope in his hands, he fought to keep his composure. This was not the moment to lose his temper and rush into the dim interior. Unfortunately, he was not a patient man.
“Why are we at cross-purposes, cousin? If you surrender gracefully, I will unlock your shackles,” Robert said pleasantly. Of course, he was lying. There had to be some kind of punishment for her defiance. While her unflagging spirit was admirable, Catherine had never learned her place in their household. Where his parents had failed, he intended to triumph. Taking her innocence had been the first step in bending the wench to his will. “You must be hungry. Knowing my mother, she has been feeding you bread and water. Come out from the shadows and I shall feed you a meal worthy of a vicar.”
The stark silence was infuriating. His face hot with anger, Robert stepped across the threshold, wondering if his parents would be upset if he strangled his little cousin after he was finished with her body. Perhaps this was the reason why they had not encouraged him to join them on their outing. They wanted the girl to disappear. As far as he could deduce, no one would miss her.
“I can hear you breathing, Catherine. Are you frightened?” he mocked, his muscles tightening as he anticipated their impending battle. “Hoping to sharpen your claws on me, little cat?”
His smile froze as the flat surface of a wooden shovel struck him in the face. The stunning force of the blow sent him sprawling on his backside. Too dazed to speak, Robert’s arms flopped uselessly against the wooden floor.
A grimly determined Catherine stepped out of the shadows. “Why should I use my claws, cousin, when I have a sturdy grain shovel to break your nose?”
She raised the shovel over her head, and this time it connected with the side of Robert’s head. His eyes rolled back as he lost consciousness. Catherine swayed on her feet as the enormity of her actions coursed through her veins. With her wrists in shackles, she used the grain shovel to steady herself.
There was blood on Robert’s face, she thought dully. The first blow had indeed broken his nose. Blood was darkening his blond hair from her second clout to his head. Catherine felt queasy, but she attributed her weakness to lack of food rather than the violence she had just committed against her distant cousin. Robert, the man who was supposed to love her as a devoted brother, deserved much worse than a sore head, but she did not intend to linger long enough to be his executioner.
Worried that he might be feigning sleep, she jabbed his soft belly with the shovel. Robert did not flinch. Dropping to her knees, Catherine set the shovel aside, but kept it within reach. The iron chain linking her wrists clinked as she methodically searched the man’s frock coat and then waistcoat for the key. She suspected her cousin had no intention of freeing her, but he was a resourceful man. He would have convinced that pious harridan who gave birth to him to give him the key.
Catherine grinned for the first time when her fingers retrieved the small iron key from the pocket of his waistcoat. With her head bowed, she bit her lower lip in concentration as she positioned her wrists so she could insert the key into the left cuff. It popped open, and she switched the key to her left hand to release the right cuff. The iron clattered to the floor, and she let herself feel a small measure of hope. She was finally going to be free of this household and the cruel, selfish people who dwelled beneath its roof.
“Let’s see how you like being shackled, cousin,” she taunted before she rolled him over onto his stomach. She dragged his limp arms behind his back and secured his wrists with the shackles Mr. Royles had used on her after his wife had whipped her for seducing their son.
In truth, she doubted the Royles were any blood relation to her at all. Catherine knew the story of her ignoble birth. Although her mother had been married, her husband was not Catherine’s father. It was a humiliating predicament. Catherine was physical proof of their adultery, and as soon as her mother had given birth to her unwanted bastard daughter, her sire had paid Mr. Royles to take the infant away. She supposed she should be grateful that her mother had not ordered her neck broken. The lady had other children and a reputation to protect. Other people had murdered for less.
To their neighbors, the Royleses had claimed her as a daughter, but Mrs. Royles had revealed the truth of her origins years ago. Catherine Royles was born with the mark of sin, and she had spent most of her young life paying penance for her parents’ wickedness.
She gradually came to despise them for it.
Catherine climbed onto her feet and roughly grabbed her cousin by his arm. “Come along, Robert. ’Tis the shadows and rats for you.” She grunted and strained her arms as she slowly dragged him across the dirty floorboards. “The servants will find you before your parents. Then again, they hate you as much as I do. Maybe they’ll ignore your muffled cries for a day or two.”
The servants kept to their own business. None of them had risked their necks when Robert had cornered her near the dairy, shoved her to the ground, and ravished her with practiced brutality. During the past year, she was not the only one to notice him watching her in a not-so-brotherly manner as her slender figure had gradually ripened into a woman’s curves. They had each in turn warned her that it was only a matter of time before the master’s son gave into his lust. However, not one of them had spared her the humiliation of her cousin’s touch; nor had they come to her defense when she told Mrs. Royles of her son’s attack.
“I wouldn’t shed a tear if those blows to your head curdled your brains,” she muttered, breathing heavily from her exertions. Catherine sat down on the floor beside the unconscious man. She grabbed the hem of her dirty dress to reveal her stockings. Threadbare and dirty, she swiftly stripped them from each leg. “If given the chance, I’d dance a jig on your grave, but your mother would see me hang from the nearest tree for the crime. Even if I was innocent.”
Grimacing, she put her hands on the young man again and pushed him onto his side. Catherine grabbed one of her stockings and gathered it into a ball of fabric. “Open up, cousin,” she said, and enthusiastically stuffed the filthy stocking into his slack mouth. She picked up the remaining stocking and placed it over his mouth, tying it at the back of his head so he could not spit out his gag.
Catherine straightened and admired her handiwork. Robert would be furious when he awoke, but she had no intention of remaining to savor her victory. She stood and crossed the room to retrieve the rope he had dropped. It took her a few minutes to bind his legs. To ensure he was unable to wiggle his way to the door and summon help, she used the remaining rope to tie his legs to the nearest wooden post.
Robert moaned and his eyelids fluttered as he struggled to awaken.
Clearly, she had not hit him hard enough.
Still dazed, his forehead furrowed in confusion until he recognized her face. His eyes widened, and his body strained and bucked against his bindings.
“Good. I didn’t think we’d have a chance to say our farewells.” Catherine patted him on the cheek. “Oh, don’t look so glum. Someone will eventually find you and cut you free.”
Robert mumbled something.
She could tell by his expression that it wasn’t complimentary.
Catherine stood and pretended to brush some of the dirt from her skirt. “Your mother dragged me in here to contemplate my countless sins. I would suggest you do the same. Perhaps the rats will take pity on you and chew on the ropes. Farewell, cousin. We shall not meet again.”
Catherine ignored the man’s muffled shouts as she headed for the door. She picked up the grain shovel on her way out, and shut the door. From there, she made her way to the house to gather what she needed for her journey.
By the time Mr. and Mrs. Royles returned from their outing, Catherine would be long gone from Diphill Green.
Copyright © 2012 by Alexandra Hawkins