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Excerpt from Julia London'sThe Last Debutante

From an interior chapter:

Daria hadn’t taken more than a few steps when a stone pierced the sole of her shoe.  She uttered a mild curse beneath her breath and carried on, choosing her steps carefully.  The shadows were indeed much deeper in the forest, making it difficult to see.  More than once, the dog that preferred to dart ahead had a maddening habit of suddenly appearing before her, startling her.  “Walk on, you ridiculous mongrel,” she chastised him.

Her arms began to burn with the weight of her portmanteau.  She swore to herself that if vultures did not carry her off, she would never bring so many items with her again.  “One gown,” she said aloud, seeking company in the sound of her own voice.  “One gown for evening, one for morning, and one for day.  But no more than three gowns.”  She shifted her portmanteau into the other hand.  “And certainly no more than two pairs of shoes—”

The acrid smell of smoke wafted across her, bringing her to an abrupt halt.  Where there was smoke, there was life, and hopefully, that life was her grandmother.  If not, well…Daria would face that conundrum if and when she met it.  At that moment, she believed she could face any danger if it meant she could put down her portmanteau and take off her shoes.

She quickened her step, climbing up the path to the crest, at which point she stopped cold.  There, on the edge of a green field where some cows were grazing and chickens were waddling about, was a cottage.  And what a charming little cottage it was, with a thatched roof and blue flowers in the window boxes—the sort of cottage Mrs. Gant and Mrs. Bretton were determined to see on their tour.

The peasants of Scotland take great pride in their cottages,” Mrs. Gant had said to Daria, apropos of nothing.

“Please, dear Lord, let it be Mamie taking pride in this one,” Daria sighed.  She adjusted her portmanteau and began picking her way down the path as the dog raced into the field after something that had caught his attention.

Daria arrived at the fence that surrounded the garden.  The swinging gate was unlatched, and inside the fence was a large patch of glorious color—yellow, blue and pink flowers springing up from the ground, looking slightly untended.  In the other half of the small garden were green plants that Daria assumed were root vegetables.  This was where her grandmother lived?  In a crofter’s cottage?  Her elegant grandmother was a crofter?  Daria pushed through the little gate and shooed a rogue chicken out of her path with her foot.  “Mamie?” she called.

No answer.

Daria walked up to the rough-hewn door.  She used the flat of her hand and hammered it.  “Surprise, Mamie!  It’s me, Daria!”  She waited a moment, then added unnecessarily, “Your granddaughter!”  She stepped back and stood with the portmanteau clasped in both hands, her smile deepening as she imagined Mamie’s great surprise and pleasure at finding her only granddaughter on her doorstep.

But Mamie did not open the door.  No one opened the door.  Daria wondered if she weren’t mistaken, if this was not Mamie’s cottage after all.  But then again, Mr. Brodie had assured Daria that he knew precisely where it was.  And he certainly had seemed rather sure of himself when he’d deposited Daria on the side of the road.

Daria leaned forward, pressed her ear to the door, but it was too thick; she couldn’t hear a cannon through that door.

She debated for one long moment, then very gingerly and reluctantly put her hand on the door’s latch. “Mamie?” she said again, and quietly, slowly, pushed opened the door a tiny bit.

Through the crack in the door she could see a wooden table with four wooden chairs about it.  In the center was a porcelain bowl.  On one end of the table was a black iron pot, covered with a lid.  On the wall behind the table was a shelf with some books and a basket that held some balls of yarn and knitting needles, and dangling from a hook just below that was an apron.  A stack of china plates and four crystal wine glasses looked vaguely familiar to her.

Daria pushed the door open a little wider and stuck her head in.  Behind the door was another room with a settee and two overstuffed chairs.  A woolen rug covered the floor just before a stone hearth, in which a fire was cheerfully blazing.  It looked as if someone had just stoked it.  A pair of books was stacked neatly atop an end table, and next to that, Mamie’s favorite clock, the one Charity’s father had carved from cherrywood many years ago.  On the mantle above the hearth were two silver candlesticks that Daria recognized as a gift her mother had given Mamie one year.

A rush of relief washed over Daria.  This was Mamie’s cottage!  She was beaming now, proud of herself for having found it, for having braved her first solo journey.  She was eager to see her grandmother and stepped inside, depositing her portmanteau just inside the threshold.  She removed her bonnet and tossed it on top of the portmanteau, and with the back of her hand, she smoothed hair from her face as she walked deeper into the room to look around.

“Mamie?” she called softly.  Surely she was close by; the scent of freshly baked bread lingered in the air.

There was a corridor before Daria with two doors on either side and another at the other end.  She unfastened her cloak and draped it over the back of chair at the table.  Perhaps Mamie was sleeping.  She moved quietly, pausing to look inside the first room.   There was a feather bed with a satin coverlet, a pair of slippers just beside the bed.  This would be Mamie’s room, but Mamie was not within.  She walked into the room and glanced around.  There was no water in the porcelain basin and the hearth was cold.  The wildflowers in the crystal vase on the mantle had wilted and hung like ruined ribbons, hanging over the lip of the vase.  There was no evidence of servants.  Goodness, how did one live without at least one servant to help with things?

Daria moved on, past another, sparsely furnished, but tidy little bedroom. When she reached the closed door at the end of the hall, she knocked.  She heard nothing, and cautiously opened the door.

It was dark within, and the smell fetid.  She pushed the door open wider and stepped just over the threshold, giving her sight time to adjust to the dim light.   It was quite warm, and she glanced in the direction of a fourth hearth in the house, where embers still glowed.  In a chair beside it was a heavy quilt of the plaid she’d seen a few men wearing in Nairn.  Daria moved deeper into the room—and was brought to an abrupt halt by the sound of someone’s breath behind her.  The hair on her neck rose; she whirled about, expecting to find something horrible behind her.  What she saw caused her to clamp a hand over her mouth, capturing the shriek just before it left her.

A man was lying on a bed against the wall.  A completely naked man.  Bandages were wrapped around his torso and another one around his thigh, but he was completely free of any covering.  He lay motionless, his eyes closed, his chest slowly rising, then slowly falling.

Daria’s breath deserted her.  She stood rooted to the floor, her gaze locked on him, a tremor of fear building in the pit of her belly. He was…a big man.  All of him was big.  Daria had seen a little boy without his breeches, but she had never seen a fully-grown man in all his splendor.  She had no idea that boys turned into this.

He had dark hair that spilled onto the pillow around his head.  His jaw was square, his chest corded with muscle, his shoulders broad, and his arms finely shaped by his strength.  He was trim at the waist, and he looked quite…firm.

And then there was the rest of him.

The rest of him was, in a word, astonishing.  Daria madly wished Charity were here to see this with her, to gaze in astonishment with her.  To feel the heat of curiosity swirling in her cheeks, too, to feel her pulse begin to quicken—

Cé tú féin?”

Daria gasped.  She had been so intent on his body she hadn’t realized he’d awakened; he was staring at her with dark, glassy eyes.

He spoke again in the language Daria had heard in Nairn.  His voice was hoarse, as if it had gone unused for a time.  He pushed himself up on one elbow, grimacing with the pain.

Daria was speechless.  Her awareness of him flooded her cheeks and neck with uncomfortable warmth.  She tried to think of what to say, of how to extract herself, but before she could do it, the man glanced down at his body, then at her again.  With his gaze locked on hers, he grabbed the end of a linen and slowly, deliberately, pulled it over his body, covering his groin.  Only his groin.  And then he spoke again, repeating the same strange words.

It only served to fluster Daria even more.  Was she in the wrong cottage?  Had she, somehow, walked into this man’s bedroom?  “I beg your pardon,” she said.  “I don’t speak your language.”  What a ridiculous thing to say, standing in this man’s bed chamber, having a good long look at him while he slept.  “I did not mean to…to see,” she said, gesturing vaguely to him.  “It was an accident.  I must have come to the wrong cottage.”

His gaze remained locked on hers, his expression inscrutable.

“I came in quite by mistake.  Mr. Brodie said her cottage was here, but she’s not about.  I…I entered without permission, but I had walked quite a long way, and the portmanteau was so heavy.”  She was babbling now.  He probably didn’t even understand her, but it didn’t stop her from trying to make a right from a very horrible wrong.  “Yes, I must have the wrong cottage,” she said apologetically, as if it were perfectly natural to walk into someone’s home and in to their bedchamber.  She took a step back.

The man leaned forward a little.  She thought he was going to speak.  But instead, he fell forward with a grunt, his forehead striking the wooden frame of the bed.  Daria cried out with alarm, and stood paralyzed, waiting for him to move.

He did not move.

She leaned forward, her heart pounding.  Did he die?  A bubble of hysteria rose up; she could feel the scream in her throat when he rolled onto his back with a grunt, his eyes closed, the grimace deeply etched into the skin around his eyes.

The bed linen, she could scarcely keep from noticing, had slipped from his body again.

“I’ll show myself out,” she whispered, feeling hot with embarrassment.


The word was spoken soft and low, but Daria would know Mamie’s voice anywhere.  Daria whirled about—to look straight into the barrel of the large gun her grandmother held.