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Excerpt for The Baron of Elridge Manor by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Baron of Elridge Manor

By

Reeyce Smythe Wilder


Copyright 2018 by Mellissa Lopez St. Louis

Smashwords Edition



Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Chapter One

Norfolk - Autumn, 1829

The cool crisp afternoon wind sent the colorful leaves above Loretta's head fluttering noisily, but not so much as to drown out the heated words that echoed in the house next door. She cocked her head just so, wondering if the owner of the booming voice knew that even when her Mama played the pianoforte, the curses could still be clearly deciphered. Her fingers sank into the soft center of the doll she clung to as she felt her cheeks flush. It was unseemly to have her tender ears tainted with such language, her governess often said. Loretta found herself more than curious about her new neighbors. Three months ago the Baron of Braybrooke moved into residence. In his tow he brought a wife of questionable character - she thought she understood what her mother meant by that but she could not be certain - and, if rumors were to be believed, a nephew fit for Bedlam.

It was only last evening at dinner did she brave her father's unkindly expression to enquire if the gossips were true. He dismissed it all as hogwash, and berated her mother for allowing her to partake in such nonsense. His dismissal only peeked her curiosity, so much so that she abandoned her usual haunt on the back porch and spread the small blanket behind the old oak that offered not only a cozy, shaded spot close to the brush, but an unobstructed view of the heavy draped curtains that lined the ground floor of the neighboring house. She did not intend to purposely spy on the Baron. It was his wife of questionable character she was most interested in. In her young mind Loretta pictured a comely, buxom woman adorned in extravagantly colored dresses with a shameless disposition. She had seen a painting once when her father took the family to France for the first time last spring. Loretta did not know at that time that dresses so small could be made to fit women of girth. Now, as she shifted to get a better view of the house, she silently willed the boisterous creature out the front door and into the yard where her curious mind would be settled.

Something shattered, followed by another series of curses and muffled cries of pain. The voices that carried on were as clear as the sky above.

"Come back here you devil!" This from the Baron himself. Her eyes widened in anticipation, but he did not step into view. A blur of blue and white darted by and she scuttled back quickly, only then realizing that she was on hand and knees with her face almost pressed into the hedge. "There'll be no dinner for you tonight you bastard! Don't come crawling back in here when you come to your senses!"

The door slammed.

Loretta's heart did the same in her chest. She heaved breaths, somewhat disappointed that there was nothing to see but equally enthralled at the tidbits of the argument she was privy to. Slowly, she moved back upon the blanket, smoothening out the creases from her skirt and repeating the action with her doll. Well, maybe tomorrow would prove less disappointing and just as exciting she mused, and all but forgot about the argument as she rummaged through the small picnic basket she had toted from the kitchen across the expanse of the yard. With great ease and delight she started to unwrap the small feast Cook had packed, only to hear slow heavy breaths. Taken by surprise, she stared dumbfounded at the dirt streaked untidy boy before her. Loss for words, she knew that he must be the nephew fit for bedlam. By the look of him she would have readily agreed. The white shirt he wore was too large for his lankly frame. The blue trousers that was stained in several places with something that looked and smelled like fresh manure boasted a hole in the left knee and was several inches too short.

What stunned her most were his bare feet. Bruised and red, his wounds looked painful. Without thinking, Loretta said the first thing that came to mind. "What happened to your feet?"

"What happened to your manners?"

Stunned, she allowed her gaze to clash with his. Eyes as azure as the noonday sky lacked all warmth of the sun. Anger clouded his initial shock at finding her there. Loretta experienced the very first tingle of fear. She had not considered his presence a threat in the first few moments of her observation. After all, her father had dismissed the boy's insanity as foolishness. There was nothing for her to fear. Was there?

His lips curled back into an ugly sneer as if he heard her thoughts well. Loretta held herself still. She would not allow him to intimidate her. After all, she committed no crime, only that of eavesdropping, and she highly doubted that was an offence.

"My manners?" she quipped, trying to bring her thoughts to order. "You're the one who sneaked up on me."

"I wasn't sneaking," he denied hotly. "What are you doing here?"

Loretta re-wrapped the sandwich and tucked in safely away. "Having a picnic." His eyes took in the scene before him, from her head of curls to the doll she so carefully propped against the trunk of the oak.

"It's stupid to have a picnic alone," he shot.

Loretta bristled. She considered him long and hard, refusing to look away when he sneered again, and observed for the first time the long trails of tear-stains that marked his thin face. She almost forgot his beating she had heard mere minutes before. There was a slight discoloration upon his left jaw and one of his eyes appeared to be swollen. They were both red from tears. Compassion moved her. In a flash she forgot all about the gossips and his road to Bedlam.

"I won't be alone if you agree to join me."

Soto Audley froze and stared at her in confusion. She was being suspiciously nice to him and he had not given her reason to. Eyes lowered, he sniffed as he considered her frail form. Her head of hair was a burnt honey color that dazzled his eyes in the sunlight, each ringlet perfectly curled and left to hang down the length of her back. She could have been about thirteen or fourteen given her height, but her chest was as flat as a board and she boasted the hips of a lad. Unusually large eyes graced her pixie face the color of hazel and honey, and when she smiled it seemed to brighten the pale hue of her skin and add life to her otherwise ghastly complexion. The dress she wore fell to her calves which were dutifully covered with stockings and knickers, and tight pomp's near squeezed her toes. Everything about her spelled propriety - from her tightly done curls to her shined shoes. Soto sneered and turned away, hating the very image of what she represented. It reminded him of the guardians who did a poor job of caring for him.

"No." He knew he acted like a spoilt brat. He also knew she had not just appeared behind the oak. She must have heard him receive his beating. Another tale to prattle about in the nursery with her friends no doubt. A new wave of fury gripped him and he turned to her again, his fingers folded into fists. "Do you know who I am?"

She mulled over the question longer than was necessary. "You're the Baron's nephew."

"Have you heard what they say about me?"

She folded her legs to the side and looked upon him in what might have passed for anticipation. "That you're fit for Bedlam."

Stunned, he met her gaze. Such frankness. "You should be running to your cradle in fear." Her lips twitched, and he felt his face redden. She laughed at him! "You think I jest?!"

Slowly, she shook her head and went about the business of unpacking the basket once more as if she had done so in his presence a hundred times before. "I think you are a boy who is very interesting, if not a little angry. Why are you angry?"

He blinked, hesitated and clamped his mouth shut. What business was it of hers what he felt and why? What decent person would ask such a question after they all but heard him receive a beating? Annoyed and embarrassed, he turned to her once more, only to gape. She held toward him a bottle of some type of beverage. Spiced milk by the look of it.

"Babes drink milk," he stung, snatching it from her fingers. Just as quickly, he poured in all over her bouncy curls. The look upon her face was priceless. Face beet red in rage, she darted to her feet and slapped his hand away. The bottle fell upon the grass and settled there. Soto planted his hands upon his hips and snickered at the hot tears that clouded her eyes. It served her right. Now she would have much to discuss at afternoon tea.

"You dreadful wretch!" she hissed as she haphazardly stuffed her effects into the basket. "I hope you drown in your sorrows!"

Soto admired her limited vocabulary, for he had been called much worse at a tender age. "If I ever see you again trust me, I will!"

She turned about and moaned, considering her wet blouse and soggy curls. "The gossips are right - you do deserve to go to Bedlam!"

That sobered him enough to wipe the smile of victory off his face. "Maybe I'll spare the lot of you and do just that."

"Sooner rather than later I hope!" She marched her way across the undulating lawn toward the white-stoned house that he had watched from his bedroom window many a night. He eyed her until she disappeared inside, and realized only then that the doll she had stuffed into the basket now lay on the damp grass. With a bare toe he nudged it and cast a hesitant glance around before snatching it quickly and tucking it into his shirt.

"Foolish chit," he muttered, and moseyed on down to the overgrown path where he spent the rest of the day in the woods.

***

Soto was senile - or so everyone said. Whether or not he believed them he had yet to decide. In the moments when the constant anger he harbored in his heart was pushed aside, he would fight the doubts he had and would listen to the groans of resentment his uncle held toward him that hurt more than he was willing to admit. To cover the pain, he recalled the manner of his treatment suggested by a doctor from Bedlam and a good friend of the family. That alone was enough to keep him angry for days on end. Where there was rage, no room for agony existed.

The signs of his madness started one year ago on the eve of his fifteenth birthday. He had gotten the news that his father had become the victim to a faceless murderer. Soto's grief was immeasurable. Even now at the memory of the man, he felt his throat tighten with pent up emotion. Still, his father was dead, and he had spent enough tears on someone who would never return.

His care was given to his father’s brother, an uncle he had never before met. Coming to the Baron of Braybrooke was more of a curse than a blessing. He expected tender consideration from his only relative, understanding and a place to belong, someone who would attempt to give him everything his father no longer could. His heart broke a second time when it was discovered that he was nothing but an extra mouth to feed - and many a times, not even that. The butler was more cherished than he in his uncles’ house. Especially when madness threatened.

He stared at the small portrait of his mother encased in a silver locket and sighed heavily. It was all he had left of her.

Through the heavy branches of the trees his gaze drifted absently, wishing the deepening chill of the evening would numb the fear that always attempted to cripple him just before nightfall. He had tried to anticipate its arrival, but each episode was triggered by something or another and it never came at the same time. There was no one factor that was always present. How many times had he awoken in the forest, nude and dirty? How many times had the staff found him in some forsaken corner of the estate, covered in grime? He bore no memory of the events - only the fear on the faces of the servants who all retired their positions that very week. His uncle, livid and ashamed, moved the family here a fortnight later.

That was three months ago. Now, there was a new method of keeping him under control. Soto's pores raised as he considered the irons that were attached to the wall beside his bed and circled it like the plague before settling himself upon the windowsill. One day, he swore, he would not be dependent. One day he would be able to fight back - if they did not commit him to the madhouse first. An ironic smile made his mouth twist. The smile vanished just as quickly when he spotted a head of honeyed curls between the branches.

Well, someone didn't quite learn her lesson, he thought. He stood quickly and made his way across the room, then paused. Beneath the bed, in an old wooden box that held all his worldly possessions, he retrieved the dirty doll. It seemed an oddity among his things. Why exactly he tucked it in there had nothing to do with keeping it. Good lord no! It was the safest place he knew to conceal the ugly thing for no-one ever trifled through his room and it was to be returned. Soto was many things but a thief was not one of them.

He shoved the mud-stained doll into his shirt and considered the door before deciding that the window would prove the wisest way out. It would not serve him well if anyone saw him with a girl's doll. Decision made, he climbed through the window and scuttled onto the branch closest to his outstretched hand before scaling down the tree trunk and onto the lawn with a speed and agility that someone twice his age would envy. Moments later he stood beside the oak, curious as to why she returned after he treated her so ghastly. Surely she did not want to be chased away again. Or maybe he was not as intimidating as he liked to believe. He edged his teeth violently and stomped forward, making sure his presence was heard before she saw him. The uncertainty in her eyes when she looked up was slightly disappointing, but he could work with that.

Loretta blinked and forced herself to look away. He stood there with his hands folded across his chest and a stern, frightful expression on his face. Well, she argued silently, if he thought she would run away the way she did yesterday, he was wrong. Mind made up, she ignored him fully and produced a small book, quill and ink. At first there was silence, long and stretched until she swore she would go insane having him look at her so intently.

“What the hell are you doing?”

She jumped, startled, the ink spilling onto her nice white gloves. Vastly annoyed, she took a steadying breath and put the effects upon the grass before she daintily peeled off her gloves. “Writing. Or is it a strange thing to see someone write?”

“It’s strange to see you write here,” he quipped, no doubt referring to the day before.

Loretta stiffened her spine and put the gloves away. “Well get used to it, because you’re not going to chase me away again.”

“Oh, I didn’t come to chase you away,” he informed high-handedly.

“Why did you come? To tell me that girls don’t write?”

He smirked and shook his head, considering the small leather bound book that bore her name in bold letters. “I didn’t come for that either, although it is a very good argument.”

“A foolish one. My mama writes, as does my sister and my governess.”

“Do they also have tea outdoors dressed like that?” He indicated her dress with his head and a scornful eye.

“Of course,” she stung icily. “They are ladies. They’re supposed to socialize dressed like this.”

“Then they’re prim, proper and boring.”

“We take pride in being prim and proper.”

“And boring.”

She huffed and aimed a lethal frown toward him. “I would have you know that we are everything but boring. Why, just last week Papa took us all to the fair and we had a grand time.” He looked at her in disbelief and disgust, as if she related the details of eating haggis. Still, it seemed important that he knew she was fun-loving. As if to prove it, she pushed to her feet and continued. “I even shot an arrow.”

Her effort was rewarded with a snort of mockery. “It’s a wonder you didn’t shoot yourself.”

“What a dreadful thing to say!”

“I’m a dreadful boy.”

“Quite fit for -”

“Yes Bedlam. I know.”

Stunned, she considered the impatience on his face, as if he were well accustomed to and more so, fed up of talk of Bedlam. “I was about to suggest a spank of two.”

Fire lighted his orbs and his face flushed in anger. Loretta took a step away from him, regretting her insensitive words the moment they left her mouth. Feeling quite ashamed, she nibbled the inside of her cheek and spoke as soon as he opened his mouth. “Forgive me. I did not mean to awaken bad memories. Mother would have a spell if she knew I said something so …” When he made no immediate response, she stole a glance toward him from beneath long eyelashes. He considered her with a confused expression on his face, as if he did not know what to make of her. Then, as if in sudden realization, his eyes sparked, then dimmed just as quickly. He appeared worried and kicked at the dirt with the tip of his shoes before eyeing her once more, this time not breaking her gaze.

Loretta felt as if he surveyed her the way her father did his horses. There was something about the manner in which he looked at her – with an eye so critical that she found herself shifting uncomfortably, wondering what the punishment for her runaway mouth would be.

How she disliked him! He was a cad – it was a wonder that he was not already locked away somewhere, if not Bedlam, then in his room. In all her years, and with all the many cousins and friends she had, Loretta didn’t think there was one as obtuse as him. From his mud colored hair to the icy chill of his eyes that seemed a much brighter shade of blue today compared to the day before, she detested him. It had everything to do with his attitude. The way he stood, the way his chest protruded as if he were the most important part of any plan, the way he stuck his tongue in his cheek when he focused upon her and finally looked away, the way he continued kicking the dirt in the same place over and over and over again – it was driving her insane!

Then he presented her doll and her anger toward him evaporated like dew on a hot morning.

“Margaret!” she exclaimed, and rescued the stained doll from between his too-tight fingers. Just as quickly she shot him an accusatory stare. “How dare you steal my doll?!”

His jaw slackened almost comically, and he took on an affronted expression. “I didn’t steal anything! You dropped it in your haste yesterday.” She eyed him with a measure of distrust and did her best to wipe away the mud caked upon the miniature dress. “Had I not gotten there in time the dogs would have turned her into rags,” he boasted easily.

“Really?” Her eyes widened ever so slightly. There was awe and innocence in her tone.

“Almost got my bloody finger bitten off too, and what do I get for my efforts? An accusation. I should have left it right there. And aren’t you a little too old to be playing with toys?”

Loretta cut him another glance and idly stroked the dolls tight curls. Maybe he wasn’t nearly as bad if he almost got his hand mauled to save her doll. And Margaret was indeed a special doll. Her father purchased it when he travelled to Italy on business even before she was born, so hopeful was he that her mother would give birth to a daughter. She had heard the story of how hard he prayed very often that he would be blessed with his own little princess. The doll resembled what he hoped she would look like. As if by a miracle, she boasted the same honey hair and bright brown eyes. Last night had been full of discomfort and worry over her carelessness in losing Margaret. Who would have thought that her very nemesis would be her savior?

She exhaled delicately through slightly flared nostrils and nodded with slow precision. Yes, he may have been crude and unmannerly, and his constant frown scared her more than ever, but he had returned her doll, and for that she was grateful. “You can share my picnic if you want.”

In a flash he was on the seat of his trousers, shamelessly raiding the small basket. Loretta watched in fascination as he ate greedily, never once offering what was her picnic after all, and tried her best to recall that she was bred to overlook such horrific manners in the more common sort.

But this boy was definitely not common. As far as she knew, he was the son of a second son with no title or estates to his name. Still, the air of arrogance he carried with him hinted to an upbringing of self-importance. Even now as he chewed unceremoniously, making small satisfied grunts of pleasure could not taint the stubborn set of his jaw or his alertness. Loretta found her fascination in simply observing him.

When the meal was almost thoroughly diminished, he spared her a glance and realized that she stared. He paused and wiped a stained sleeve across his mouth before doing a haphazard job of dusting crumbs of pastry from around his mouth and chin.

"How come you didn't eat?"

Incredulity forced her jaw to drop. "I would have - if you offered."

He smirked as if to suggest she should have known better then stretched his legs forward and groaned in contentment. "Does your cook always pack such treats for you to play?"

Loretta shook her head briskly. "I didn't come here to play. I came to write."

With the smallest hint of curiosity he cut a glance toward the book lying beside her folded feet. "What are you writing about?"

She shrugged. The things she kept in her journal were none of his concerns. By being polite she had forfeited her entire lunch - she had no intention of allowing him to flip through the pages of her most prized possession.

"Oh just this and that."

If she hadn't caught the devil's smirk before he moved he would have been very successful in snatching the satchel. Anticipating his move, she shoved it beneath her rump and planted herself firmly, her face pulled tight and eyes flashing in anger. He paused and considered her, hands held to his thighs.

"Now I'm curious," he mused aloud, taunting her. Then, just as quickly, boredom crossed his face. "But nothing you write could possibly be of interest to me. It's probably just child's play. Cupcake recipes maybe?"

Fuming but unwilling to allow him to get the upper hand, she smiled a saccharine smile and nodded. "Yes. Recipes." Needing to change the topic, she started to quickly assemble the empty wrappers that were carelessly strewn across the blanket. "Now that we are beyond the point of polite conversation, are you going to tell me your name?"

With fingers locked behind his head he leaned back and stared absently through the overhead leaves. Their shadows danced a pretty, complex pattern across his features. "Soto Audley."

"What an unusual name," she mused absently.

"It’s a Spanish name - after my mother’s grandfather I think."

New interest sparked her curiosity to ask, "Have you ever travelled to Spain then?"

He snorted and shook his head. "Never."

"Would you like to?"

He paused as if in deep thought before snickering again. "No."

"Well why not?"

Slightly annoyed, he glanced at her and offered a scowl. "Because it serves me no purpose to go to Spain. What will I do there?"

She stroked the strands of her hair and sighed wistfully. "I think it would be a grand adventure travelling to another country. There must be so much to see - new and exciting people to meet."

"Like muggers and slave traders," he gaffed.

Loretta snapped her mouth shut and shook her head in astonishment. "That is a horrid thing to say!"

"It’s true! The Spanish trade slaves to the West Indies. Everybody who's anybody knows that."

She made to rise and dusted off the twigs and leaves from the hem of her skirt. Soto was fast on his feet when he read her intent.

"Will you come tomorrow?" he inquired almost too quickly. She considered him before retrieving the basket and the blanket.

"I should think not," came her tight response.

His frown of confusion was followed by a very annoyed outburst. "Why not?"

Loretta slipped the basket upon her arm and clasped her hands together to consider him the way her mother often considered her when she proved difficult. "Because I don't think I enjoy conversation centered on the trading of slaves. It has offended my sensibilities."

For a stunned moment he blinked, trying to fully comprehend what she implied - then laughed rambunctiously. Loretta ground her teeth together and turned on her heels, making a brisk attempt at fleeing. He did not lose ground in catching up with her. "Your sensibilities are weak. But I understand. You're a child."

She came up short and turned to him once more, confused at the amusement that flushed his face and was about to let him have the first taste of her sharp tongue when she realized that he smiled.

And what a handsome smile it was too! The deep dimple that marked his right cheek contradicted the hard edge in his eyes. She thought it sad he faced much at such a young age.

"If you come tomorrow, I'll show you a secret," he offered, his voice suddenly nothing but a hushed whisper.

Loretta cocked her head to one side and eyed him suspiciously. "A secret?" He nodded and turned away, hands inside his pockets as he continued walking slowly. Ever so often he cast her taunting glances, as if he understood her curiosity would get the better of her. He was right. "What kind of secret?"

"A secret kind."

Pursing her lips, she shook her head with finality. "I have a full day planned tomorrow."

Soto stalled her once more, thinking hard. "It's a good secret. You won't regret it."

Loretta ground her teeth in determination. "No thank you."

When she continued on, he did not venture. Instead smirked and said, "Meet me under the oak on the morrow."

Her steps quickened if it were at all possible. "No."

"And bring another picnic!"

A frustrated grunt was her reply. He smiled, quite contented now that his stomach was full with plans of tomorrow circulating in his head.

***

Soto nibbled the thin stalk between sharp incisors and glanced toward the sun, squinting more in annoyance than discomfort. The hour was nearing for afternoon tea and she had yet to arrive. He exhaled and cast a dark look toward the house in the opposite yard. The thick underbrush and dense branches above allotted him only a partial view of the walls and the largely grotesque bay windows. The view offered him nothing more than the heavy drapes drawn there.

The unmistakable canter of horses' hooves echoed down the drive. He moved deeper into the shadows, eyes peeled upon the direction of the noise. He heard the voice of his uncle as he welcomed guests and smirked, gratified that he would not have to concern himself about untimely visits. The Baron never introduced him to guests. For that he was grateful. There would be no uncomfortable inquiries, no forced smiles and hypocritical words of sympathy that only served to anger and hurt him. And there would be ample time to have a meal fit for a king and, if the rain clouds that currently accumulated to the west were taken away, enjoy the trek to the river.

Behind him a twig crunched and he tensed before offering a loud snort. "You're late." There was reprisal in his tone. He could have almost seen the flash of annoyance on her face, so strongly did it echo in her voice.

"You did not specify a time, did you?"

When he turned it was to crane his neck to eye her from his seat on the damp grass. "You brought lunch?"

"Yes. Sandwiches."

She was relieved of the basket quickly. Soto delved into the meal with a gusto and gestured for her to join him when he was halfway through.

"Given your healthy appetite I took the opportunity of eating at home," she sniffed. Unapologetic, he grunted between chews. Only when the core of an apple remained, he stood slowly, stretched, and belched so loudly that pure horror marked her face.

"You're a boar!" she complained, fanning the ginger-beer breath that settled before her face.

He flicked his tongue across his teeth, dislodging the remnants of crumbs there before shoving the basket back into her hands. "I could get used to eating like that."

She wrinkled her nose and dumped the effects at her feet. "Well don't. Cook is of the opinion that I will develop collywobbles and she promised to give me a good dose of castor oil tonight before bed."

He shrugged as if it mattered not to him and started walking toward the woods. "Come along and stop giving me a headache with all that talk of castor oil." She took all of two steps before she paused. He faced her impatiently. "What is it?"

"Where are you going?”

"I’m going to show you the secret - or have you changed your mind?" Hesitance shone brightly on her face. Soto scowled in annoyance. "Are you scared? Is that why you don't want to come along?"

"No," she denied too quickly. "It's just that Mama said never to go into the woods alone. It's dangerous."

He huffed as if he knew something the rest of the world was not privy too and drew upon all the patience he had left. "What danger? Besides, you won't be alone." She twisted her hands indecisively and when she showed no sign of surrender, he turned his back pointedly. "Whatever. I have no time for cowardly little girls anyway."

Halfway down the path that led out of the yard he heard her hasty steps that turned into an all-out run. "Wait!" With a crooked smile, he pretended not to hear. "Wait! I'm coming!"

They ventured onto the overgrown path littered with flowers and weeds, so much so that she was distracted on several occasions to pause and collect many beautiful blossoms. Soto stopped each time, a little frown of annoyance twisting his features into everything but polite. His patience came undone when she sat and rubbed her ankles, her face flushed with exhaustion.

"What's the matter now?" he snapped. Lord, if he knew she would be such a keep-back he would not have bothered to goad her into joining him.

"My feet hurt."

He considered her shoes, lily white complete with tiny pink bows and heels. "Take your shoes off then."

She looked at him as if he had sprouted horns. "I most certainly will not! If Mama ever found out that I-"

"Is she the one suffering aches and pains?" he argued irritably.

"It's not proper."

"Do you always do what's proper?" he mocked, annoyed to no small degree.

"Yes," she declared stoutly.

Soto smirked again, this time planting his hands upon her shoulders and pushed her down so that she sat on a moss-covered log. "Liar. You're a disobedient little snot."

"I am not!"

Swiftly, he dislodged both shoes from her feet and, ignoring her exasperated squeal, took both tiny feet into his hands and awkwardly considered the damage done. At the back of each heel she boasted water blisters.

"Don't touch them!" she cried. He considered her darkly.

"How long have you had these?"

Distressed, she allowed her head to fall. "Since the day before yesterday. Mama insisted that the pumps would eventually be broken in."

Muttering an oath that was much too filthy for his age, he dug deep into one of his pockets to produce a small penknife.

"What are you going to do with that?" she gasped. His fingers tightened upon the ankle he held and, without a response, took his time in draining each sore. She considered the frown on his face and dared to speak. "Did you ever get a sore?"

"Many times."

"Did you also tend them yourself?"

"My father did," he muttered softly.

"Oh! Did he teach you how to treat them?"

His task completed, he pocketed the knife and wiped his hands along the length of his thighs before shrugging a non-committal reply. Loretta flexed her feet and reached for the shoes once more.

"Leave them be. You'll only irritate your feet more. If you keep them dry it shouldn't become infected."

"Well I can't very well go frolicking though the woods barefoot," she reasoned.

"Why not?"

"Well, there're thorn bushes for one."

He shook his head and leapt over the log. "You've already slowed us down enough. If you want aching feet then that's up to you. Just come on already."

She tucked the pumps beneath both arms and followed his disappearing form deeper into the forest. The scent of pine and honeysuckle was heavy in the air and she reveled in the outing, for she had never been bold enough to venture out of the yard and into the woods.

Maybe he was not so much of a good influence, she thought. Her mother had on several occasions, reminded her that although she was safe in and around her own home, she must never put herself in situations where harm could easily fall upon her. Still, she felt safe with Soto, even if everyone thought him insane.

Loretta knew differently.

At a fork in the road he paused, she at his side, wondering at the shadows that seemed to declare a much later hour than it actually was.

"This way," he directed. Up the hill they climbed until her legs ached and a thin layer of sweat beaded her forehead.

"How much farther?" she breathed.

"Just above the rise."

She counted off each step - seventy five in all - and felt the wind knocked out of her at the sight. The stream spanned across the way, meandering silently into the woods where it disappeared into the dark. It might have been ten feet wide, with waters so deep it looked cobalt in the afternoon sunlight. Across the stream stood a nest of trees, tall and thick, painted in hues of autumn. A smile spread upon her face and she clapped in childish delight.

"Oh it's beautiful!"

He grunted, satisfied.

"Do you come here often?"

"Sometimes."

"How did you find such a place?"

Soto led the way to the pond he had made late that summer. Hours were spent digging the bed of the river and using rocks to construct a makeshift wall to contain its depth. A damn of sorts, he thought. It was far from completed, but he had not the zeal to continue, for winter would soon be upon them and he would no longer be able to run to this haven or spend the days away from his uncle. Two months ago after a nasty beating, he had somehow escaped from the manor and found himself here. He returned every day since.

"Exploring," he conceded abruptly. She didn't seem to take offense, for already her attention was directed elsewhere. Soto adjusted himself upon his favorite rock and watched absently as she dipped her toes into the chilled water. It developed into a game he realized, and ignored her the best he could while keeping her in sight. How long they lingered he was not quite sure, but the sun was well on its way to setting.

"Come on," he called out, dusting the seat of his trousers.

She pouted. "Must we?"

"Not if you want you tell your mother where you were and who you were with at this time in the evening."

Her face paled and she darted up the incline to meet his smirk. Their jaunt back down the path that led to the yard didn't seem as far. They made it in all of twenty minutes. Darkness settled like a light blanket over the woods. Loretta rummaged through the basket, ensuring that nothing was forgotten before flashing him a fast smile.

"I daresay your company has improved," she informed, and before he could respond, pressed a quick kiss to his cheek. Stunned, Soto eyed her in disbelief. "I shall see you tomorrow in the evening. And I'll even bring along a picnic!"

With that she took off at a run across the moist lawn, her long curls trailing behind her like a banner. Soto wiped the back of his hand over his face and sniffed as he watched her leave. He didn't particularly mind spending time with her. Her affection, however, he needed to dissuade.


Chapter Two

Soto pushed the windowpane open on silent hinges and planted his feet solidly on the stone floor before securing the latch. His gaze was focused outside on the bits and pieces of the house across the way that was partially obscured by the gnarled, ugly branches of the trees that blocked his view. Bright yellow lights danced from almost every window, creating a halo of iridescent white upon the already lightly painted walls.

Absently he touched his abused cheek and felt the first heat of a blush rush to his face – a delightful tinge of innocence that left him slightly bereft of breath with a strange tingle at the base of his chest. He rubbed the hollow sink of his stomach, snapped the drapes shut and turned around, forcing himself to focus on the heavy chain links that were plastered into the wall above his bed. Unwillingly, his heart beat increased, pounded until a light sweat matted his forehead and the breaths he took were quick and short and not nearly enough.

Each night it was the same. He would dread the attack, dread the thundering of footfalls that would lead to his door, dread the bitter brew they would force down his throat – but most of all he dreaded the pain that the loneliness brought with it. And lonely he would be again, for when he was shackled and drugged with nothing but a migraine and his own pitiful cries as company, he realized time and time again that this was what it truly meant to die of insanity.

And those were the relatively good nights.

The bad ones…

He closed his eyes and took a steadying breath. The room was cold and dark. There were no maids to light the candles and lamps, no one to heat and wrap a brick and leave it faithfully upon his sheets. Not that he cared. Soto accepted he was not a welcomed guest in his uncles’ house from the start – he would not allow himself to indulge in self-pity.

On numb feet he moved forward, finding flint and stone and lit the kerosene lamp that stood upon the table beside his bed. For a long while he stood there, staring sightlessly at the fire, thinking that there was more warmth from that flame than the house which sheltered him.

In the hall he heard the muffled voices of his aunt. She was complaining about him again to his uncle. He did not respond when he was summoned to dinner apparently. Soto sniffed as if to dislodge an unpleasant smell and turned his back pointedly to the door. It had been four days. Four days of being fed nothing but thin slices of bread, cheese and water.

Distaste made his lips compress into a harsh line, but not before his uncles’ voice thundered from the hall.

“Soto boy, open the door!”

Chills swept his body even as he slowly moved to obey. There was no use in making things harder for himself. The lock clicked open and he peered up at his uncle. The Baron was a tall, heavy set man with a protruding belly that strained against every waistcoat he wore. Eyes as pale as his studied him shrewdly, and when he stepped inside he did so sideways to prevent his crisply pressed clothes from brushing Soto’s less than pristine ones. Soto considered him boldly. The look of animosity he tried unsuccessfully to conceal seeped through the cracks of his expressionless face.

“You were summoned to collect dinner.” It was a cold statement full of scorn. Soto was well accustomed to that tone. It unsettled him not a bit.

“I fell asleep.” The lie was one he had used on numerous occasions. He did not doubt his uncle knew it to be so. Still, he was past caring.

“Well, now you’ll have to face your bed without repast.” Soto shrugged lightly. He recalled the thick slices of ham and cheese, the fresh lettuce leaves and the juicy tomatoes, all packed between thick warm slices of wheat bread from the folds of Loretta’s picnic basket and sighed softly. He did not regret wolfing all three sandwiches down, nor did he regret guzzling the bottle of ginger beer. As a matter of fact, he fancied it his new favorite drink. “Did you hear what I said?” his uncle repeated, a little louder this time around. “Because of your negligence you’ll go to bed hungry tonight. And I know you’re just about starving, aren’t you boy? When was the last time your aunt allowed you sustenance? Two days ago? Three?”

Soto’s hand tightened on the doorknob he still held. “Three.”

The Baron nodded in approval, his cruel features cast in shadow and light. “You’ve offended her. You would be lucky if she considers you again in a few days’ time.” Soto lowered his head, but not because he was afraid or ashamed. He did not want the man to see the pure hatred that shone like a beacon through is orbs. The Baron mistook his actions for regret. “After the attack I would imagine. I would speak to her of course, in case she feels a sense of misplaced sympathy for you. Can’t have you strengthened and hurting someone in a fit of madness.”

A cold shiver shot up his spine and he shuddered, his jaw clenched tight, so much so that his teeth hurt. With just a step and a sniff, the Baron turned and exited the room, leaving the scent of his spicy, stifling perfume to linger in the damp air.

Soto closed the door softly and dragged his back along the door until his behind made contact with the floor. They intended to keep him docile by denying him food. A tactic that was quite successful in the past, he had to admit. Still, no one knew exactly when the attack would come, and if he would be allowed to eat only after the fact….then there was no telling when he would see a plate.

His eyes clouded. In moments like these he recalled his father, recalled the tenderness and the concern he was lavished with upon the death of his mother at a tender age. But the Fates were cruel, to thrust him upon a family that cared nothing for him or his well-being.

In the two days that he had eaten his body felt no stronger, but his sleep was calm and undisturbed by nightmares and the awful, ache that was associated with hunger. Tonight would be no different he knew. Slowly he stood, retrieved a pillow and the duvet from his bed and made his way to the window where he sat. The warmth of the sheet enveloped him, and he stared outside.

Loretta was no doubt having a lavish dinner with her family. There would be steak and potatoes, gravy and soup, rice and biscuits and scones with an array of jams he had never even heard of. But what brought the little half twisted smile to his face was knowing that maybe even now, she smuggled something for him. The warmth that burned in his chest started slowly, and hovered there until he was drowsy enough to finally fall asleep.

***

Each afternoon met Soto laying in the shade beneath the oak, patiently awaiting his meal and the company of Loretta, who, despite what he might have said aloud, he secretly considered his only friend. Well, maybe friend might have been too strong of a word, but she was definitely on her way to becoming his friend. Especially since he had gained all of four pounds in the first two weeks of knowing her. Even now as he absently cleaned his teeth with the frayed end of a twig, he cast glances her way. The sunlight filtered through the branches and bathed her in hues of yellow light. Although she still wore those silly frocks, he was proud to say that she kicked off her shoes as soon as she settled on the grass beside him. Her feet, he observed forthright, were slowing becoming tanned in the late autumn sun.

This afternoon she was curled up with her journal, constantly scribbling and muttering in low tones, deftly ignoring his very existence. Which usually suited him fine. But he was restless. More-so because he had not had an attack in more than a fortnight. Still, it would come. He felt the anxiety begin to build a little more each day, agitated and caged.

Casting another glance her way, he noticed how engrossed she was in her thoughts and contemplated telling her of the attacks. But like on all the other occasions he considered it, he banished the idea. What would she say? What would she think of him if he were to confess the truth of the matter? As it stood, she thought the rumors a lie, a story concocted by the elite to defame the Baron because he was, as she put it, a nasty old toad. Still, he could not hide the truth forever. And part of him never wanted her to find out. She trusted him wholly. She believed him capable of good, although Lord knows he was a direct pain in the ass each day they met. He made inconsiderate remarks, sneered, snapped, and had even made her cry just last evening.

Still, that did not stop her from coming the following day.

Or the next.

He looked up again, about to steal another glance when she caught his eyes. And smiled. Soto hesitated and turned away quickly. Suddenly, the food didn’t sit so well in his stomach.

“Your hair is growing out,” she commented, snapping the book shut.

He ran his fingers through the strands self-consciously. “Yeah.”

“You should have it trimmed.”

He thought of the sharp scissors in the hand of the glass-eyed butler and shrugged. “I’ll take care of it later.”

She leaned forward and started to carefully pack the basket, dusting crumbs from the coarse cloths the meal was wrapped in.

“Is everything alright?”

His head snapped up, and he continued to chew at the twig, this time with a vengeance. “Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

He made an irritated sound at the back of his throat and shot her an impatient stare. “I said yes. Why are you pestering me?”

She cocked her head to the side and met his gaze head on – intense and almost electrifying. “You’re awfully quite. That’s why.”

He shrugged. “Maybe I have a lot to think about.”

“Really? Like what?”

He took the twig from between his teeth and considered how utterly flattened it was. If he was crazy, he would have confessed everything. Well, maybe he wasn’t that insane after all. The thought near made his grin. If only.

“Like what you keep writing in that book.” Color fused her face and she held the leather bound book protectively to her chest. Soto thought she looked vulnerable. Mischief twirled in his orbs. He could easily snatch it away from her fingers. She was no match for his speed or strength, but he did not want to upset her. And he had been pretty good of doing that lately.

Softly, like the brush of a gentle wind, he voice reached his ear. “I collect recipes.”

Shock made him stare at her blankly for a while. She rushed on as if to defend herself. “Cook and I try a new dish every evening. Of course Mama doesn’t know. She thinks cooking a lowly task set out for a servant. But I fancy it, and Cook says I’m very good too.”

He frowned, trying to imagine her in the kitchen with the servants, mixing a batter and covered in flour. “Have you ever eaten anything that you’ve actually made?” he asked in disbelief.

Once again her face flushed, and she nodded. “And so have you.”

Soto’s eyes darted to the basket, then to her face, and he recalled the slice of blue-berry pie he so marvelously praised only fifteen minutes ago. And felt his face turn plum red. To think that he went on and on about how decadent it was! No wonder she grinned from ear to ear. He was worried she might have her face split in half.

He pushed to his feet and dusted the leaves off his trousers. Lord, he was beginning to fill out. Even his clothes fit snugly, which was something. The Baron, he knew, watched him closely in the evenings, as if he couldn’t understand how the denial of food could make one gain weight. Soto had been tight lipped, unflinching under the torrent of questions he was forced to endure each evening. As a precautionary measure, a lock was installed on the outside of his door during the day. The Baron had the only key. He was locked in each dawn, and the Baron was arrogant enough to believe in his own plans so as not to check upon him until the evening meal.

“Where are you going?” Loretta asked. She tucked the basket close to the tree trunk and stood, following suite and brushing leaves from her skirt.

“To the river. Where else is there to go?” he replied in an impatient tone.

Loretta adjusted the bonnet atop her head and tied the satin ribbons into a jaunty bow just beneath her chin when she met the mockery on his face. And prepared herself for whatever hurtful remark she had no doubt would come out his mouth.

Soto was not the easiest person to get along with. She had known that from the very first day they met and she knew that now. Still, there was something about him that made her want to help. And he needed help. At least she thought so. In the two weeks they had become friends, she realized that he ate with more than simple zeal. He ate because he was constantly hungry. There was no appreciation for what went into his stomach just as long as it filled the hole there. Then she realized that he depended upon the meals, so much so that on the one occasion she did not bring the basket with her, he was visibly disappointed.

She never made the mistake again, and had even tried to deny herself a meal or two. Pure horror and compassion swelled within her when she discovered what it meant to be hungry. In her case, there was an abundance of food.

With Soto…

She tried to put the images of his bony frame out of her mind and failed flawlessly. He had not been well initially. Always tired. Always boasting dark circles beneath his sunken eyes as if nightmares haunted him.

Now, he had gained weight. And he slept, for his face beamed when he smiled, and he was energized enough to pull pranks and tease her.

Silently, they trekked down the path, and had just entered the woods when the bellowing voice of the Baron forced them to pause.

“Find that boy! I want to know how he….” Muffled was the rest of his sentence.

Loretta’s eyes widened in instant fear. “He doesn’t know that we-”

“I should be locked in my room until doomsday according to him,” he scoffed, snatching her wrist as he pulled her deeper into the woods. Loretta wrung her arm out of his grasp and shook her head violently.

“What if he gives you another thrashing?”

He laughed bitterly. “I’m accustomed to thrashings, remember?”

Hot tears stung her eyes. That he spoke of his beatings as something so trivial angered her. “I do not want to remember. I do not want him hurting you for something as simple as leaving your room.”

“Would you prefer me locked away?”

She gasped and folded her fingers into the skirt of her dress, innocent tears falling from her eyes. “Of course not!”

“Then come along before we are caught.”

They disappeared into the trees, him fuming in silence and her afraid of what would happen if they were discovered. When the river finally came into view, she sank herself into the grass and heaved a sigh of defeat. Soto settled himself next to her. For a long time they said nothing. Finally, when she could stand it no longer, Loretta began.

“I know he starves you,” she ventured, then hesitated when he stiffened as a blush of embarrassment stained his face. “You do not have to tell me anything if you don’t want to. I just don’t want you getting into trouble.”

He snorted and shrugged. “I like trouble.”

“I know. That concerns me.”

He cut her a sideways glance and broke a blade of grass, absently tearing it apart. “If I go back now, a beating is what I’ll get. If I return later, my fate is the same. I would enjoy today and face what I must when the time comes.”

His words were quietly spoken, solemn and sure. Loretta linked her hand through the crook of his arm and rested her head on his shoulder. His body went ramrod stiff for a moment. When he relaxed and did not pull away, she took that as a good sign.

***

Soto cracked open his eyes and stared long and hard at the door, not daring to breathe or shift least the springs beneath his bed creak. He heard the footsteps down the hall – one of his uncle, the other of the butler – and knew the time for a reckoning had come. The lock slid back, and just as the men entered the room, he darted off the bed and stood to his full height.

“Well, look who finally made it home,” the Baron jeered, his beady eyes dark in anger. In his hand he held a riding crop. Soto’s eyes flashed in fear. He was well accustomed to the sting of pain. “Now I’m going to ask you one time boy. How did you get out of this room?”

Tongue heavy, he opened his mouth. And clamped it shut just as quickly. If he confessed to climbing out the window, it would be barred. There would be no more delicious meals from Loretta and no more outings. He did not know which one would torture him more. Surely, this thrashing would be worth it.

He took too long to come up with an excuse, so instead he said nothing. The Baron’s roar of rage made his blood run cold, and when the man stepped forward with the cane held high, Soto covered his head and sank to the floor. The beating was done in anger and violence. Above the ringing in his ear he heard the filthy names his mother was called, heard the slandering of his father, felt the rage build within his heart and fed the hatred there, but dared not lift a hand in his defense. He tried that once. The butler, a silent observer to his plight, had assisted the Baron in shackling him to the bed where the beating continued until he became unconscious. It was not an experience he wanted to repeat.

Finally, when the heavy fists stopped falling, the Baron spat mercilessly upon him. Soto remained stationery, unwilling to uncover his head and face. Tears of shame and helplessness racked through his body. Finally, the Baron turned away, delivering the weapon to the waiting butler. A pristine, white handkerchief was withdrawn from his breast pocket, and as the man cleaned his partially dirty hands, he spared Soto another disgusted glance. “Let him clean up his own filth,” was all he said when he left the room. The door slammed, and Soto was left alone to weep, stained in blood.


Chapter Three

Loretta waited beneath the oak faithfully every afternoon for seven days, but he did not come. On the eight day she stood in the shade and contemplated the short stone path that led to the neighboring yard. It appeared to her as frightful, only because she knew if she dared to venture, she stood a chance of coming upon the Baron himself. What could she possibly say if she was discovered? Soto had asked her to keep herself hidden from view, had made her swear an oath of secrecy. Still, worry made the lines on her forehead deepen. After much deliberation, she secured the basket upon her arm and made her way into the knee-high weeds.


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