BOOK FOUR of THE STRANJE HOUSE NOVELS
“Clean, historic romance with a touch of the supernatural. Cannot wait to read the rest of these!”– FireandIceReads.com
It’s 1814 in this alternate history. Napoleon has forced Europe to its knees, and now he plots to seize control of Britain. Miss Maya Barrington, one of Miss Stranje’s unusual girls, is asked to serve as a double agent and use her uncanny gift of persuasion to thwart Napoleon’s scheme.
Maya gains entry into this treacherous spy game on the arm of the elusive Lord Kinsworth. She can read almost everyone; not so with this young rascal. Quick with a jest and armed with lethal charm, Lord Kinsworth remains just beyond her reach. With Britain’s future at risk and her friends lives hanging in the balance, does she dare trust him?
“An unforgettable story told with such lyrical beauty it takes my breath away.” – Patience Griffin, bestselling author of To Scotland with Love.
Click here for a Readers Guide to Harbor for the Nightingale.
Miss Maya Barrington’s Typhoon
July 1814, Mayfair, London, Haversmythe House,
Miss Stranje hosts a coming-out ball for her young ladies
ALL THE WORLD IS SOUND. Even if I were blind, I would still be able to see. It is as if everything hums—the trees, air, stones, and people—especially people. They all sing songs.
Some songs are more dangerous than others.
Most of the guests have already arrived at the ball, and our receiving line is dwindling. Georgie, Lady Jane, and Tess left us to join a lively country-dance. Seraphina still stands quietly beside me. Her inner music wraps around her as delicately as does the silk of her cloud-blue ballgown. With her white-blonde hair, Sera is the closest thing to an angel I have ever seen. On my other side, stands our rock, our headmistress, Miss Stranje, a woman made of iron.
The footman at the doors announces another arrival. “Lord and Lady Barrington.”
My father and his wife stand in the doorway. The instruments playing serenely within me crash to a stop and clatter to the floor of my soul.
I press my hand against my heart to keep it from flapping and shrieking like a strangled bird. Seraphina edges closer so that our shoulders touch. She is trying to lend me strength.
The ballroom overflows with people. Dozens of strangers clad in shimmering finery, surround us, laughing and talking, but my very English stepmother ignores them all and marches straight for the receiving line. She holds her nose aloft, and her mouth pinched up so tight that her porcelain white face looks almost skeletal. An out of tune clarinet, she squeaks toward us, every step making me wish I could stop up my ears.
People say she is beautiful. My father certainly must have thought so. I fail to see it, especially when her face prunes up as it is doing now. It is a familiar expression. One that causes me to quake nervously while simultaneously clenching my fists.
Stepmother. That is what I was instructed to call her. I cannot bring myself to do it. Mother is a title of sacred honor. This woman, whose soul honks like an out of tune oboe, hasn’t the faintest motherly inclination toward me. To me, she will never be anything more than the woman who married my father. Never mind that my mother, his first wife, was a Maharajah’s daughter. To the new Lady Barrington, I am merely the brown-skinned embarrassment her husband acquired in India. Her hate roars at me like high tide slamming against a rocky shore.
She halts, and her blond sausage curls quiver with distaste as she plants herself squarely in front of Miss Stranje. She does not curtsey or even nod in response to our headmistress’s greeting.
Her words trickle out so sweetly that most people would not notice she is gritting her teeth as she utters them. “Miss Stranje, a word if you please.”
Naturally, Seraphina notices. She notices everything—it is her gift. And her curse. She reaches for my hand to reassure me. Of the five of us, we who are Miss Stranje’s students, Seraphina Wyndham is the only one who truly understands me, and I do not want my best friend to suffer if she is caught being supportive of me. So, I smile reassuringly and slip free of her fingers. This is my battle, and I must face it alone.
Sera tugs my arm as I step away and furtively whispers, “Do something. Calm her.”
She, like everyone else at Stranje House, mistakenly thinks my voice contains some sort of magical power to soothe. It is much simpler than that. My grandmother taught me how to use certain tones and cadences to relax people and communicate tranquility. Most souls are more than receptive, they hunger for it. My father’s wife is a different matter. I have tried in the past, and rather than succumb to my calming tactics, she resists. On several occasions, she even covered her ears and screeched at me. I remember well her accusations of witchcraft and demonic bedevilment. It was on those grounds she convinced my father to send me away to Stranje House.
I wish, for Miss Stranje’s sake, Lady Barrington would let me quiet her rat-like tendency to snipe and bite. Although, I’m not worried. I am confident our headmistress has guessed what is coming and will manage my father’s wife quite handily without my help. After all, a rat does not surprise an owl.
“This way, Lady Barrington.” Miss Stranje graciously directs our bristling guest to the side of the receiving line.
Father’s charming wife clasps my shoulder and propels me forward with her. I could not possibly soothe her now. I’m not nearly composed enough to do it. Indeed, I am battling an overwhelming inclination to yank her boney claw from my shoulder and twist it until she cries off.
“What have you done, Miss Stranje?” Lady Barrington releases me and waves her hand at my ensemble. She is objecting to Miss Stranje’s ingenious innovation, a traditional sari draped over an English ballgown.
“Why have you dressed the child thus?” Lady Barrington’s fingers close in a fist around the embroidered veil covering my hair. “I’m mortified! You’ve garbed her like a heathen. Surely, this is an affront to everyone here.” She flicks the saffron silk away as if it has soiled her gloves. “How do you expect Lord Barrington and myself to weather this . . . this outrage!”
She barks so loud that some of our guests turn to stare.
“After the enormous sum we paid you, it is beyond my comprehension why you should do us such a disservice—”
“Lady Barrington!” Miss Stranje’s tone chops through the woman’s tirade. “Calm yourself.” Our headmistress stands a good four or five inches taller than most women, and she straightens to make every inch count. “You sadly mistake the matter, my lady. The other guests are well acquainted with your husband’s daughter. In fact, a few weeks ago she was invited by no less a personage than Lady Jersey to sing at Carlton House for the Prince Regent. Miss Barrington’s voice impressed His Highness so greatly that he, the highest authority in the land, suggested your stepdaughter ought to be declared a national treasure.”
“What?” Lady Barrington blinks at this news, but her astonishment is short-lived. She clears her throat and steps up emboldened. “Oh, that. I am well aware of Maya’s ability to mesmerize others with her voice. She uses demonic trickery, and you ought not allow—”
Miss Stranje leans forward, her tone low and deadly. “Are you unaware of the fact that Lady Castlereagh issued Miss Barrington vouchers for Almack’s?”
“Al-Almack’s . . .” Lady Barrington sputters at the mention of high society’s most exclusive social club. Her hands flutter to her mouth in disbelief. “No. That can’t be. Lady Castlereagh approved of her?” She glances sideways at me and her upper lips curls as if she tastes something foul in the air.
“Yes. Her vouchers were signed and sealed by the great lady herself.” Miss Stranje’s face transforms into a mask of hardened steel under which most people tremble in fear. “Not to put too fine a point on it, my lady, but Miss Barrington has been granted entry into the highest social circles. And, more to the point, it is my understanding that the patronesses refused to grant you vouchers. You were denied, is that not so?”
Lady Barrington steps back, unwilling to answer, a hand clutching her throat.
Miss Stranje refuses to let her quarry wriggle away. “In fact, my dear lady, anyone planning a soiree or ball during the remainder of the season, anyone who is anyone, has invited Miss Barrington to attend. I have stacks of invitations, dozens of notes, all of them begging your husband’s daughter to do them the honor of singing at their gatherings. Indeed, society has taken her under their wing so thoroughly I had rather thought you would be offering me a bonus, instead of this ill-conceived reprimand.”
Miss Stranje turns and levels a shrewd gaze at my father, who until this moment stood behind us silently observing.
He places a hand on his wife’s waist and moves her aside. This stranger, this formidable Englishman who I used to call Papa with such glee, steps up to my headmistress and takes her measure. After a moment that stretches long enough to hammer my stomach into mincemeat, he nods respectfully. “Very well, Miss Stranje. I shall send additional remuneration to you in the morning.”
His wife gasps, and indignation squeals off her like sour yellow gas.
He turns to me and reaches for my hand. Every instinct in me shouts to pull back. Do not let him touch you. It has been many long years since I have seen anything resembling a fatherly mannerism from him. I am terrified of what I might feel, and yet even more terrified of what I might miss if I pull away.
A sharp intake of breath crosses my lips, but then all other sounds cease. I no longer hear laughter or talking from the guests in the ballroom. No footsteps. No shuffling or clattering. The hum of impenetrable silence muffles everything else as I watch him lift my hand.
My father bows slightly, the way all the other gentlemen did as they came through the receiving line. He holds my fingers loosely as if we are mere acquaintances. “You look lovely, Maya, very much like your mother.” He straightens, and I think I hear a whiff of sound—a soft keening, low and mournful. Except it is so brief and distant, I cannot be certain.
“You have her fire in your eyes. She would be proud.” He squares his shoulders. “I’m pleased to see you making your way in the world—flourishing on your own.”
Unable to summon enough breath for words, I dip in an English curtsey that has become a habit. When I am able to speak, it sounds embarrassingly weak and fluttery, like a frightened bird. “I am glad you think so, my lord.”
He lets go of my gloved fingers, offers his arm to his wife, and leaves me. Without a backward glance, he walks away. His measured gait is aloof and elegant, no different from that of a hundred other strangers in this room. The hollow thump of his heels as he abandons me hurts far worse than anything the spiteful woman he married has ever said.
I wish now that I had not allowed him to touch me. I ought to have run from the house—anything would be better than this grinding loneliness that darkens my insides. I would rather rip out my heart than to fall into the chasm threatening to swallow me. I’ve been in that dark place before.
The way he dismisses me without a second thought sends me spiraling back to India. I’m there again, in the stifling heat of his sickroom. Worried, I sneaked in to see him and stood quietly at the foot of his bed. Fear thumped through me like an elephant march as I watched him thrash under the sheets, fevered with the same epidemic that had only days earlier taken my mother’s life.
I remember his wide-eyed alarm when he noticed me standing by his bedpost. I was only six, but I can still hear his hoarse shout for the servants. “Get her out of here. Send her away!”
“No! No. I want to stay with you. Let me stay with you,” I begged. Crying, I clung to his bedpost, refusing to leave.
“Go! Take the chi—” Retching cut his rebuke short. Next came a string of muffled curses. “Out!”
“Come, miss. You cannot stay. Your father is very sick.” Servants dragged me, kicking and screaming from his room. Later, my ayah told me Papa wanted me to stay away so that I would not catch his illness. I will never know if that was true or not. My ayah may have been trying to spare my feelings. I do remember telling her I didn’t care if I got sick and died. I would rather stay with my papa.
“No, kanya. No, little girl. You must not say such things.” She brushed my hair until it gleamed like my papa’s black boots. “You will live, child. I see this. The future blooms in you. You are gende ka phool.” She pulled a marigold out of a small vase and placed it in my palms. “Protector. Sun lion.” I touched the bright orange petals and thought to myself, what good is such a small flower. It is too fragile—too easily crushed.
I was right.
The next day, on Papa’s orders, his secretary, a fusty man with little patience for children, escorted me to my grandmother’s family in the north. My father sent me away from the only world I’d ever known. On that long trip, loneliness and hurt chewed me up. Why would he send me so far away? Was he too sick? Or was his grief too heavy for him to share in mine? Perhaps my black hair and olive skin reminded him too much of my dead mother. Or was it because she was gone that he no longer cared for me?
We traveled for days and days, journeying toward the great mountains, land of the five rivers, and all the way there, sadness gnawed on my soul.
Few Europeans had ever ventured to the old villages and cities along the rivers. People were wary and distrustful of my white escort. He had difficulty finding a guide, and even when he did, we made several wrong turns. I did not care. Numb with grief, certain my father would die, or that he no longer loved me. I was already a lost child. What did it matter if we wandered forever?
After several treacherous river crossings, our guide located my family’s village on the Tawi River. The weary attaché deposited me and my trunks in their midst and hurriedly left. I sat in the dirt beside my baggage, completely abandoned. The last ember of hope flickered inside me and blew out.
Strangers, who I would learn later were my cousins and aunts, gathered in a circle around me, staring, their faces ripe with curiosity and suspicion. Half-English, half-Indian, I was an unwelcome oddity, who belonged nowhere. I sat in the center of their circle, feeling like an oddly painted lizard. Did they judge me poisonous? Or edible?
A woman’s joyous cry startled me. Astonished, I stood up. In my exhausted state, amidst all the confusion, I briefly mistook her voice for my mother’s. I stared at the old woman running toward me. The voice, although eerily similar, did not belong to my dead mother. It belonged to my grandmother.
She burst through her gathered kinsman, took one look at me, and opened her arms. Though I learned later she had only visited me once as an infant, she kissed my forehead and hugged me, rocking and murmuring in Hindi. In tears, she declared to all my cousins and aunts that I was her daughter returned home.
Grandmother, my naanii, did not care about my mixed blood. She had no qualms about teaching her half-caste granddaughter the ways of her people. Others in our village were not so quick to trust me. I was half-English, after all. But out of respect for my grandmother, they kept their opinions to themselves. Naanii taught me how to make bread, how to mix healing herbs, braid hair, sew, and a thousand other things.
More importantly, Naanii taught me to listen.
To hear the world around us.
Over and over, she told me, “All life sings a song if we will but stop and listen.”
I remember standing on the banks of the river washing clothes. “Close your eyes, little bird,” Naanii said. “Quiet your mind and tell me what you hear?”
I pointed to her kinswoman standing in the shallows scrubbing her laundry against the stones. “I hear Kanishka humming a contented tune.”
Grandmother, ever patient, smiled and asked, “And the stones, little one, what do they sing?”
I laughed and closed my eyes tight, listening for subtler vibrations. “They are old, Naanii. Their voices are quiet and deep. I can hardly hear them. Kanishka sings too loudly, so does the wind in the trees and grass.” I opened my eyes. “And the river is especially loud.”
“Ahh.” She nodded, wrung out the cloth she’d been laundering, and set it in her basket. “It is true. Water is bold and brash. Very noisy.” She galloped her fingers through the air. “Always rushing to and fro. River thinks she is all-powerful. You must try harder, my child. Listen for the calm voice of the stones.” She laid a smooth pebble in my palm and pointed to one of the large rocks jutting up, splitting the current of the river. “Do you feel it? The mighty waters push and shove with the strength of a hundred horses, yet that boulder is unmoved. Hear how deep it hums, how sure it is of its connection with mother earth.”
Years later, I would hear the stones sing, but not that day. That day I heard my grandmother, not just her words; I heard the unfathomable vibrations of her soul. It was as if she was as ancient and knowing as the stones of which she spoke.
I wish I were still standing on the banks of the Tawi River. Instead, I am here in London with too many sounds roaring in my ears—the babble of our many guests, the rumble of the city seeping up through the bones of this house. My father has taken me half a world away from the person who loves me best in all the world. Even though she is thousands of miles away, I close my eyes, hoping to catch my grandmother’s distant pulse. I try to block out all the other noises, searching for those melodic threads that run between us even at this great distance.
“Maya? Maya! Are you all right?” Lady Jane rests her hand on my shoulder and startles me out of my search. She and Sera stare at me expectantly. “The musicians are tuning up for a quadrille. We are about to return to the dancing. But you seem shaken, what’s wrong?”
I look at Lady Jane, wondering how to answer. I am not all right, as she phrases it, but what else can I say, here in this jangling place. “Yes, I hear the music,” I say, and try to smile as if it is an important observation, as if the frivolity of dancing lightens my heart.
“Hmm,” she says skeptically, and takes my hand, pulling me along with her like the mighty river carrying a piece of driftwood. I feel her questions clamoring to be asked, but luckily, I also know Lady Jane will restrain herself. This is not the time or place for that sort of discussion. She glances around the room and spots Alexander Sinclair. Immediately she brightens, and I feel joy pulse through her fingertips.
“Come.” She leads the way and, arm in arm, we face both the music and crowd together.
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