The Secret Heart by Erin Satie


I started writing THE SECRET HEART during a brief jiu jitsu phase. It didn’t last very long–a year or two, and then I moved away from a good studio–but I was pretty passionate while it lasted.
I was not, however, very good at jiu jitsu.
I gained skill, of course. But skill can only take you so far. In an evenly matched fight–ostensibly even; me against someone with more or less my ability, more or less my weight–I’d almost always be the one to tap out.
There often came a moment, a decisive moment, when things were going badly and I’d gotten myself into a dangerous position and I knew I’d have to fight tooth and nail to turn things around…or slap the mat and end the round.
And I saw the same moment in my opponents when they were about to lose. When they’d either give up or dig deep and find that extra reserve of strength and determination it took to regain the advantage.
And I started to wonder: where does that extra reserve come from? How do tap into that part of yourself that is wild and feral and refuses to submit?
Once I started asking myself that question, the character of Adam began to take shape. He’s the hero of THE SECRET HEART, an earl with a secret passion for bare-knuckled boxing.
But of course he couldn’t exist on his own. And so the next question was: what sort of heroine would be his exact opposite? Someone who could really be the love of his life and yet stand at the other side of a seemingly unbridgeable gap.
That’s how I came up with Caro. In the excerpt that follows this post, you’ll see a little bit of what makes her such a challenge for Adam. She dances a role from a ballet that was very popular in the year that THE SECRET HEART is set, which served as a touchstone for her character for me.
Chapter One

Sussex, England

Autumn, 1838

Midnight struck as Caroline Small crept through the moonlit corridor. A chorus of bongs and chimes sent her ducking into the shadow of a tall clock. Her skull vibrated with the noise.

Imagining the maintenance required to synchronize so many clocks made her shudder—did the Duke of Hastings employ a servant just to wind his clocks? All day, every day, in an endless circuit? But then, it stood to reason that the Duke would find a way to broadcast his importance even in the dark of night.

Not that she’d ever met him. Hastings spent most of his time in London and rarely visited Irongate, the seat of his duchy. Caro’s invitation had come from the old Duke’s ward and niece, Daphne.

Silence settled over the house again. Caro brushed the dust from her wrapper and resumed her slow progress. The ballroom, when she finally reached it, was bigger than the entirety of Caro’s London home. Decorative plasterwork framed tiers of arched windows, sculpted whorls and curlicues that shone dully in the moonlight. Gold leaf, probably, though she wouldn’t be sure until she saw them in the light. Overhead, thousands of crystal droplets dangled from three massive chandeliers. The whole room smelled soothingly of beeswax.

Her foot slipped on the glossy floor as she advanced, allowing her to pinpoint the odor’s source: a fresh coat of polish, applied with a heavy hand.

Too slick to dance on.

She tiptoed up to one of the French doors set into the west-facing wall, positioned to squeeze every last drop of sunset into the room. She flipped the latch and advanced onto a wide terrace. Beyond lay a garden in the French style, all paved walkways and bushes pruned into rigid geometric shapes.

All the windows on this side of the building were dark. Even the servants had cleared away. And a waist-high balustrade of white marble circled the terrace. It would serve her as a barre.

Caro lit the lamp she’d carried down from her bedroom and dropped her wrapper. Beneath she wore her usual practice uniform, a bodice and knee-length skirt of white muslin with a black sash tied at the waist. Her bare arms prickled with gooseflesh, but she wouldn’t feel the cold in a few minutes.

Her instructor, Giselle, always told her ballerinas pray with their legs. If so, An Elementary Treatise upon the Theory and Practice of the Art of Dancing was their Bible. Every obstacle is surmounted by perseverance and reiterated exercise, wrote the great instructor Carlo Blasis. Caro dropped into a plié, heels on the ground, bending at the knees, legs turned out. Remain not, therefore, twenty-four hours without practicing. It had taken almost two days to reach Irongate. She couldn’t let her first night here pass without finding a place to dance.

Forty-eight pliés, and then she moved on to the grands battements. For these, she extended her leg, raised it as high as her hip, and beat it quickly. All the lessons he takes, when widely separated one from the other, can be of no service toward making him a good dancer; and are little else than a loss of so much time. After sixty grands battements on each leg, she stepped away from her makeshift barre and repeated the whole routine.

 Lots of girls hated the barre exercises. Giselle said the talented ones often tried to avoid them. Caro loved them. She loved the repetition. She loved the precision. She loved the feel of her body doing what she told it, when she told it, how she told it. Obedient. With her leg turned out, her arm bent just so, her head turned up, she felt like she’d transcended her own flesh.

Which was why, after she finished her exercises, she rehearsed her favorite passage from La Sylphide. She became the sylph, a soulless air spirit, pantomiming her erratic, teasing advances toward a besotted woodsman with skills built from the most earthbound qualities of all: discipline and perseverance.

By the time she finished, sweat dampened the hair at her temples and bloomed on her bodice. She gulped air. Her legs trembled, and she swayed like a sailor in a tempest as she skirted the balustrade and stumbled down the steps onto a gravel path leading to a three-tiered fountain.

Human again.

Caro drank, reaching out for more. Water filled her cupped palms, spilled over, cool and plentiful. Her cheeks were so hot. She could heat a small orphanage through a mild winter with the body heat she was generating.

“You must be Miss Small.”

The clipped, aristocratic voice sent her whirling around, choking a little as she failed to stifle a shriek. She saw a heavily muscled man dressed in warm flannels, well bundled despite the mild autumn weather, lips thickened and split, one eye swollen shut.

Two choices: one, she could scream. Someone would come running, maybe even in time to save her from being violated. If she were lucky, the scream might even frighten her attacker away. But he didn’t look like the sort of man to frighten easily. He did appear strong enough to throw her over his shoulder and carry her away before help arrived.

Her second choice? Run. Just run.

The stranger had a broad chest, too solid to be called lean, his legs thick as tree trunks. Beautifully made, impressive, but not tall—though he still towered over her. Fine male specimens of his kind couldn’t run with any speed. If she dug into her reserves, she’d make it through the doors before he’d gone two paces.

“I think you have the advantage of me, Mr.…” Caro backed away toward the gap in the balustrade as she spoke, angling for a straight shot at the door.

“You don’t recognize me?” He spoke in a tone of mild curiosity, not affront, in the purest accent she’d ever heard.

A prickle of unease raised gooseflesh along Caro’s arms.

A stray moonbeam skated along his pale, sweat-dampened hair. According to the portraits she’d seen on the walls, the dukes of Hastings had for generations boasted uniform, and unusual, coloring—blond hair and light brown eyes. What if this ragged, beat-up figure of a man were a member of the family?

What if he lived at Irongate?

“I’m sorry, I don’t.” Caro smiled nervously. “You have my permission to introduce yourself.”

She took another step toward the door, moving as lightly as she could, but the gravel crunched beneath her heel.

The stranger’s gaze dropped straight to her feet. “Running won’t do you any good.”

“Well, of course you’d say that,” Caro snapped. “I think I’ll take my chances.”

To her surprise, he smiled. Not much—his mouth was too swollen to stretch. Even the attempt opened the split in his bottom lip and sent a thread of fresh blood dribbling down his chin.

Caro’s stomach turned, and she shuddered.

“Go on, then.” He scowled. “Go back to your room. Lock the door. In future, try to remember that rules are made for a reason. Young ladies who stay in their rooms at night don’t have to worry about encountering bloody brutes in a dark garden.”

She couldn’t tell if terror or disgust kept her guts liquid, only that some devil had decanted strong liquor into her belly, and it would serve her as fuel. But his last sentence, the unabashedbitterness of it, gave her pause.

She tipped her head to the side. Softened her voice a bit. “Do you live here?”

He only glared, and in the silence she heard his labored breathing. Each inhale quick and shallow, then a catch before the slow exhale. He wasn’t winded. He was in pain.

Of course he was in pain. He looked like he’d been pulped.

He took a single, deliberate step toward her. And then another.

Her pity fled as quickly as it had come. She forced steel into the exhausted, stinging jelly of her legs and sprinted for the door. She flew across the gravel and took the stairs in a single bound.

Then tripped over the oil lamp she’d left aglow on the terrace. She twisted as she fell and landed on her side, but the impact still knocked the wind out of her. She gasped, sucking air faster than her lungs would take it, until her breaths settled back into a regular rhythm. Oh, she’d ache in the morning.

A shadow, a deepening of the blackness all around her, startled her. The stranger. He’d followed her up onto the terrace.

He was even harder to look at from up close. Pinpricks of blood welled in the raw skin of his forehead and cheeks. Black blood ringed the inside of his nostrils.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

She nodded.

He bent to pick up the lamp—the glass shade had cracked, but it hadn’t shattered or leaked. “Lucky little fool,” he muttered, then held out his hand.

It was a big hand, with thick, stubby fingers and bulging, reddened knuckles. She cringed away from it and, before he could get any closer, scrambled to her feet and through the open French door. She closed it, flipped the lock, and ran to the safety of her room.

If you’d like to read more, THE SECRET HEART is available right now.
I’m still working on making the book available at other retailers, but it will happen soon.
Thanks for reading!
Erin Satie.

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