Blonde-haired. Blue-eyed. A woman who’d grown up in the shadow of the gorgeous Alps, attuned to the layered and humble culture of the Austrians. She’d never been one to demand anything else. “In every way, you’re an Austrian girl, aren’t you?” was how her mother phrased it, with a twinge of doubt to her voice.
“You’ve raised me an Austrian girl,” Marta returned each time, genuinely fearful that her mother looked at her—her half-English, half-Austrian daughter, and considered her a mistake. Perhaps she longed for a full-fledged English daughter, a daughter with a better English accent, and a more proper approach to the concepts of courting and love.
Throughout the previous months, Marta had certainly proven herself to be much more like an Austrian girl than her mother wished for.
Marta Schnitzler was nearly 19 years old, which meant her mother, Evelyn Schnitzler, had journeyed to Austria to marry her father nearly 20 years before. Throughout those early years, Marta had lived a stunning, sun-speckled life. But there was always a strange shadow behind that life: the shadow of England, the country her mother had left behind and seemed to miss so desperately.
Throughout Marta’s childhood, she’d demanded of her mother only twice: why had she left her beloved home? Her mother spoke of England with such poetry and nostalgia that it made even Marta’s heart ache. Her mother had said something off-handed about her duty to Marta’s father and left it at that. “It was a different time,” she said eternally, as though that was some sort of bandage over everything else.
Marta had journeyed to England before age nineteen only a few times: at ages four, eight, and twelve. Now, as her mother verbalized to her that she would embark on a journey and remain in England throughout the next courting season, Marta was left only with the images of her twelve-year-old trip. She felt sure it had rained the entire time; the grey clouds above had pressed onto their heads in a formidable fashion, and the accents had been difficult to decipher from county to county, as they’d visited her mother’s various friends and cousins. She glanced up at the gorgeous, white-capped Alps and felt a surging pain in her stomach.
“Mother. You can’t think that I’ll just leave my beautiful Austria all spring and summer long,” she whispered. “You cannot rip me from something I hold so dear. All my friends and my …”
“Yes, your lovers,” her mother said, a note of sarcasm in her voice. “Of course, I wish you to leave your lovers. You’ve created quite a mess of it all, darling Marta. I can see it on you. You’re a shadow of your former self. Moping about the house, your heart aching.” Her mother sniffed and lifted her chin, as though she sensed the power of her words and wanted to allow them to sting another moment more.
Tears collected in Marta’s eyes, but she refused to let them fall. She, too, lifted her chin toward her darker-haired mother, a mother who looked very little like her. When they’d walked down the street together years prior, people had stopped them and asked their relation, as they didn’t seem to be mother and daughter. This had cut Marta’s mother to the core. “She’s my daughter,” she’d insisted, in broken German. “Through and through.”
This was another factor that had altered their relationship over the previous few years. It seemed that Marta’s mother could never master the German language, no matter how often she studied. She’d grown increasingly disheartened about it. When they were in public, Marta ordinarily had to take over the conversation and speak for her mother, who grew aggressively red-faced and normally screeched at Marta afterwards. “I could have handled that myself.”
But Marta had grown up speaking both languages. She felt both sides of her personality as two separate countries. And her mother had pinpointed the Austrian side as the reason for her adventurous nature, the reason she’d fallen into such a strange and sinister love-triangle.
Indeed, her heart felt as though it had been dropped deep underwater. It beat slowly, strained, aching and heavy from all the madness she’d created. It was all her fault. She knew that.
“An entire season in England will be good for you,” her mother continued. They sat in the breakfast nook area with a full view of the mountains. She poured them both another spot of tea and rearranged the shortbread cookies atop the platter between them. The platter, to contrast the tea and English biscuits, had been painted in the Austrian fashion. Here it was, on full display: another contrast between England and Austria.
“Do you suppose?” Marta asked. She moved her biscuit across her plate, unsure if she’d ever be hungry again.
“I do. You remember my sister and her son, Ewan, don’t you?”
“Aunt Margaret. Of course,” Marta returned, remembering the finicky woman, approximately the same age as her mother, who’d insisted that she didn’t run too swiftly with the boys through the forest and moors, as it wasn’t “ladylike.” At this, her mother had told her sister that Marta ran around like a ruffian through Austrian hills. “It just chills me, wondering what sort of woman she’ll grow into,” she’d said.
These weren’t the sorts of things women like Marta could easily forget. She supposed that one never truly forgot the little, strange insults one’s mother cast toward them throughout their early youth. One’s mother was one’s very first audience—and if applause wasn’t heard, what sort of creature had one become?
“You’ve spoken with Aunt Margaret about this, then?” Marta asked. Her throat felt as though it might seal off, disallow her breath.
“Yes,” her mother returned. “She’s entirely thrilled with the idea. Already speaking about the sorts of matches she wishes to procure. She’s quite the meddling woman, of course—always has been. I remember when we were first courting, she had her finger in everyone’s business. If only I had listened to her when she’d told me who to link myself with, perhaps I wouldn’t …”
Here, she paused once more and drew her eyes again towards the biscuits. This seemed to be where the two of them chose to look throughout this strange and alienating conversation. Eye contact wasn’t much of an option.
“Perhaps you wouldn’t have moved to Austria to be with Father? Perhaps you wouldn’t have had me?” Marta said, a hint of annoyance in her tone.
She’d felt the words flow from deep in the belly of her mother. She’d resisted them and now resisted asserting that those had been her thoughts. Her mother cleared her throat, shifted in her chair, and then blurted, “You’ll leave in three days’ time.”
This was far too sudden. Marta tore up from her chair and blinked at her mother, aghast. At nineteen years old, she could hardly envision travelling such a distance alone.
“You’ll take Laura with you,” her mother said then, as though this was enough of a gift.
“So, Laura must be forced to abandon her family and friends also?” Marta asked. She sizzled with volatility.
“You can tell her to remain here if you’d like to go on alone,” her mother said, sounding flippant, now. “It’s really up to you. I’ve informed her of the journey, and she seems rather pleased. Excited, even. The prospect of a new country, a new life … Why wouldn’t a young maid like that wish for adventure?”
Her mother placed a dry biscuit across her tongue and slowly chewed it, studying Marta’s face with beady eyes. Marta’s heart leapt into her throat and then floated back down again. She felt aching resentment for what her mother planned to do: rip her away from this wild situation she’d crafted.
But in truth, as minutes ticked on, she did recognise this as an opportunity to become something else, something better.
And, if nothing, talk of her departure would ripple through her Austrian town and make her sound even more exciting: certainly not the sort of woman you didn’t choose over another.
At this thought, she, too, dropped her eyes to the biscuits and chewed softly on her lower lip. “Three days to say goodbye to Austria,” she whispered, marveling at the thought.
“Make sure you say ‘auf Wiedersehen’ to as many of these chubby-cheeked Austrians as you can,” her mother said coldly, utilizing a wretched Austrian accent.
When Marta arrived back in her bedroom, she found her maid, Laura, awaiting her. In German, she cried, “Darling Marta! Your mother has informed me of the adventure we’re to embark upon.”
Oh, how dreadful that her mother could be correct about so many things. Marta curved her own smile between her cheeks and nodded. “I suppose it’s the sort of thing I can’t get out of now. Not with my Aunt Margaret lying in what for me, waiting endlessly to suit me up with some lacklustre Englishman.”
“Oh, but aren’t they endlessly attractive, the Englishmen?” Laura asked. She batted her eyelashes swiftly.
“Laura, I can’t imagine they’ll be anything too exciting. Aren’t they meant to be rather stuffy, rather boring?” Marta returned. She perched on the edge of her bed and gazed out again at the mountains, her heart surging with panic.
“I’m rather sick of Austrian men,” Laura returned. “Not that your mother has given me much time to myself for such matters.”
“I understand that,” Marta murmured, resolving herself to give Laura as much time as she required off to truly experience this strange “English” existence to its full potential.
“Oh, but I’m rather worried about my English,” Laura continued. “It’s entirely lacklustre, and I know it will get me into heaps of trouble.”
“Perhaps I can teach you a bit on the way,” Marta offered. “It’s a very long, very arduous journey. We’ll need something to keep our minds preoccupied.”
Laura chatted on for a long while about her suspicions of the way of life in England. Marta continued to gaze outside. Dread seemed to envelope her. When she finally cast her eyes back toward Laura, Laura placed her hand on her heart and swept toward Marta.
“Darling, I’ve known you for years and years, and I’ve never seen you looking so tremendously…”
“Oh, it’s just this heartache,” Marta stuttered. “Part of the reason my mother wishes to send me away. I feel as though everything I’ve ever known and loved, everything I’ve ever dreamed of, is about to be taken away from me.”
“You’ve looked so stricken over the past weeks,” Laura admitted. “I haven’t drudged up the courage to ask.”
“You must have heard the gossip about the market,” Marta said, her voice heavy. “I’m widely known as the loser in a love triangle; the woman left behind. I know my mother wishes to shield me from such wretched labelling. But in truth, I believe that heartache is so powerful that it will follow me across the continent, all the way to that tiny island she loves so dearly. I cannot understand it, Laura. If she loves England so much, why doesn’t she return? Her love for my father seems lacklustre in comparison.”
“Your mother, leave your father? She would never operate so outside the bounds of societal expectation,” Laura returned.
“I suppose. But why would she remain so miserable throughout the rest of her life?” Marta considered. “She looks at these beautiful mountains—these incredible gifts from God himself—and doesn’t feel a thing. I know it because I can see the coldness in her eyes. She sees this next step in my life, this journey to England, to be a necessary and mathematical one. She cannot fathom the depths of my soul.”
“But didn’t she come to Austria in the first place because of some sort of wild belief that your father was her dearest and only love?” Laura asked. She said it sneakily, as though she wanted to remind Marta of just how similar she and her mother truthfully were.
Of course, Marta yearned to reject this concept. She sniffed and said, “I really don’t need anything else from you today, lovely Laura. Please, take the rest of the time for yourself. I can begin to pack myself. I know it’s nothing an English girl would do, but it’s what I feel I must do to prepare myself.”
After Laura left, Marta lay back on her bed and felt her heart drum up a reckless beat in her chest. She felt her best-laid plans shrivel up and die, right before her eyes. All the while, the man she’d fallen for, the man she’d given her heart to, was assuredly off with this other, beautiful, entirely-Austrian woman, a woman who’d beaten Marta in every single manner, in heart and soul and beauty.
Marta clutched the fabric of her bed’s blanket hard so that her fingers lost their colour. She sighed, recognising the severity of her anger, and slowly unclenched.
England. It was to be a fresh life. The sort of one that would allow her to make up her story as she pleased. Just then, her story in Austria had been cut short.
But there would be other things. Other events. She was Marta Schnitzler, and she lived only within the bounds of her own adventurous reality. Regardless of her mother’s “sentence,” she would embark on this journey with her eyes open to the possibility of it.
Perhaps that was how she could best her mother: to prove to her that she didn’t need anything but the wild imagination of her own mind.
Three days later, Marta and Laura sat together in the coach en route to England. Laura seemed skittish as the coach embarked from the station in Vienna. She nearly glued her nose to the window to peer out and wave manically at her brother, who’d arrived with her to see her off. Marta had already bid adieu to her mother and father at their estate, which had left her little to do while Laura and her brother Max had carried on before the coach’s arrival.
It devastated her to admit that she wished for the sort of love Max and Laura had between them. Her mother hadn’t been able to have other children after her; there had been something wrong during the birth. Sometimes, Marta wondered if this was another reason that her mother demonised her. She wasn’t only her Austrian baby; she was further the only one she’d been allowed to have.
Throughout the journey to England, the train passed through Germany, with its rolling green hills and beautiful lakes and The Black Forest. As they cut through the border, Laura looked, aghast, and said, “There’s another country between Germany and England?”
At this, Marta laughed and said, “Of course! This is Belgium.”
“Belgium,” Laura murmured, rolling the name around on her tongue. “I can’t imagine a more beautiful word.”
“Nothing is more beautiful than the word Austria. We must remember that forever,” Marta affirmed.
But Laura didn’t seem as keen on keeping her roots close to her heart. Rather, throughout the coach ride, she threw herself completely into her English lessons: reciting various terms by heart as they ripped through Belgium and laughing at some of the other phrases Marta taught her, such as, “By the by,” and, “Wouldn’t you like to?” which, she said, sounded terribly ridiculous from a purely rhythmic perspective.
“You’ll take to England in no time at all,” Marta said, genuinely pleased at her ability to teach. It kept her mind off the love she left behind, off the mother who seemed to despise her, and off the future that stretched before her, one she felt she needed to carve out for herself.
Here on the coach, it was just her and Laura and various verbs and phrases and nouns, along with mounds of whatever coach food items they purchased, including various sweets and biscuits and little packets of cheese.
When they neared England itself, the clouds that had lived in Marta’s memory of England brewed up overhead, thick and formidable. On instinct, Laura reached for her jacket and flung it around her shoulders. Enormous raindrops splattered across the window, and Laura again lurched toward it to peer at the bright green flatlands, the fields that seemed almost moss-like, the trees that told a far different story than the ones back in Austria. They seemed oddly sinister.
“What was it like when you came here years ago?” Laura asked. Her voice was a bit strained, as though she suddenly wished to collect as much information about her surroundings as possible before the coach gave birth to them in this strange land.
“It was a family visit, mostly,” Marta said, her brow furrowed. “I met with my cousin Ewan, who is a few years older than I. I suppose now he’d be about twenty-four? So a good five years older than I. The previous time, I was twelve, and he was seventeen. I tried to keep up with him and his dear friend—oh, what was his name?—in the surrounding woods. But it was clear that I was an outsider. My Aunt Margaret scolded me and then scolded my mother. I remember distinctly she asked my mother if she really let me run about so wildly back in Austria. My mother looked stricken. Yet again, I’d disappointed her.”
“You mustn’t think of it like that,” Laura said. Her eyes glowed with innocence. “She really loves you. She must just imagine the sort of life she might have had if she’d remained in England and feel a bit regretful of it …”
“Regretful of me, her only daughter,” Marta said. Her lower lip bobbed around a bit. “Well, in any case. I won’t see her for quite some time, will I? Perhaps the next time she sees me, she’ll know me as a proper English lady. The sort of woman she’d be glad to call her daughter.”
At the coach station, Aunt Margaret, Uncle Everett, and Ewan greeted them. It took a long moment, truthfully, for Marta to recognise their faces. After all, it had been seven years since her last visit.
“Darling!” Aunt Margaret called, the moment she reached the trio. She was much shorter than Marta remembered, with stooped shoulders and several chins and wild, greying hair. Of course, as she was quite wealthy, she’d dressed excellently for this trek to the coach station. “You look every bit the Austrian girl your mother said she’d raised.”
Marta wasn’t entirely sure what sort of compliment that was, or if it could even be deemed as one. “Hello, Auntie,” she said, surprising herself with how thick her English accent was in this sort of company. “Uncle Everett. And you must be Ewan.” She flashed a large smile at her handsome, broad-shouldered cousin. “I suppose you don’t remember me.”
Ewan’s grin widened. There was a big gap between his two front teeth, one Marta didn’t remember from their youth. “Of course I remember you. Not everyone has a cousin from Austria. It’s made me quite the talk of the county.”
Aunt Margaret rolled her eyes. Her wrinkled hand clutched Marta’s wrist as she said, “He’s really wretched, Marta, I do hope you won’t be overwhelmed with annoyance. You’ll grow accustomed to him as the season goes on; I promise you.” She then gave a funny wink, which warmed Marta through her belly and up through her heart.
The good-natured greeting gave Marta a small morsel of hope. Her smile stretched wider. Suddenly, she remembered herself.
“Oh, of course. Allow me to introduce my dear friend and handmaid, Laura Arbinger. She’s been a marvellous help throughout the journey already.”
“Good afternoon!” Aunt Margaret said, her voice falling into a bit of a screech.
There was a strange pause. A look of emptiness folded over Laura’s face.
“I’m terribly sorry. She doesn’t speak much English yet,” Marta said.
“Oh! Good afternoon!” Laura said suddenly, in English. Then, she turned swiftly back towards Marta and muttered in quick German, “I’m terribly sorry. I thought I would recognise English much quicker, but their accents are bizarre, aren’t they? Much different than yours.”
“That’s so pleasant to hear! I haven’t heard the German language in many years,” Uncle Everett said. It was difficult to tell if his words were layered with sarcasm.
Laura gave Marta another confused look. Marta forced her smile and said, “It’s been a terribly long journey. Do you think we could …”
“Of course,” Aunt Margaret blurted. “Silly us. Here. We’ve brought one of our stable hands to collect your suitcases. Jeffrey!”
A muscular man in his mid-30s leapt out from behind them and grabbed several suitcases, which one of the coach hands had set in a line behind Laura and Marta. Laura nearly leapt from her stance. This was surely the first time someone had actually waited on her, rather than the other way around.
Aunt Margaret, Uncle Everett, and cousin Ewan lived on a grand estate approximately a half-hour outside Central London, a county that allowed for the snooty response that one was “from” London, without any of the inner-city chaos.
As they rode, Aunt Margaret explained what had befallen her eldest daughter, Tatiana. The memory of Tatiana was brief in Marta’s mind. She was perhaps twenty or twenty-one at the time of Marta’s most previous visit, which meant that she was now twenty-seven or twenty-eight.
“She married when she was twenty-three, which was altogether appropriate,” Aunt Margaret recited, speaking as though some people had suggested Tatiana had married a bit too late for their or society’s liking.
“Who did she marry?” Marta asked. This was the sort of thing her mother would have liked her to ask.
“She married an earl, in fact!” Aunt Margaret said, altogether pleased with the question. “It was one of the more beautiful weddings I’ve ever attended. She’s a petite little thing, our Tatiana, and her earl towered over her throughout the ceremony. Their courting was quite swift. I remember I matched them in May, and by August, the engagement was set.” She beamed at Marta.
“So you’re a bit of a matchmaker,” Marta said, remembering what her mother had said about the upcoming courting season.
“Oh, it’s just precisely what I dream to be,” Aunt Margaret said. She seemed to glow with excitement. “I already have such a strategy for you, my darling niece. The niece from Austria! With all the beauty of the east and the Alps, and all the culture of England. You’ll do very nicely, I believe.”
Marta didn’t exactly enjoy this seeming comparison to things that were oft-traded, like cattle. But she forced her smile wider, reminding herself that this was her first day in a long string of days. She couldn’t very well draw herself obstinately out of the gate.
Obstinate cattle, out of the gate. The thought of it made her chuckle.
“What’s that, darling?” Aunt Margaret asked. Her eyebrow shot high on her forehead.
“Oh, nothing, Aunt Margaret. I’m simply pleased to be back in England. It’s been far too long.”
The carriage clucked along, through the picturesque village with its gorgeous old-world church, its steeple a bit crooked toward the sky, over cobblestones and mud roads and then all the way to the Thompson Estate, a place that rippled with Marta’s memories. As she stepped from the carriage, she felt as though she floated through a dream she’d had continually over the years. Perhaps on cue, due to some sort of act by God himself, the clouds parted over the large stone mansion and cast sunlight across it. The golden light reflected off the windows and across Laura’s gorgeous face. Laura looked as though she’d never seen anything more beautiful in her life.
“It’s entirely different to the mansions in Austria,” she said, her eyes like saucers. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“What did she say?” Aunt Margaret asked.
“She really loves your mansion,” Marta said. “It’s quite different from back home in Austria.”
Aunt Margaret lifted her eyebrows. “My! I cannot imagine what it’s like. I’ve seen the occasional painting before, of course, but lately, the way your mother has described it in letters …” She shook her head, seemingly disinterested.
The stable hand carried their suitcases into the mansion ahead of them. At the door, a bald-headed butler pulled open the door and bowed low.
“Good afternoon,” he said. “Welcome to the Thompson Estate.”
They stepped into the elaborate foyer, lined with gorgeous old-world paintings of Marta’s relatives and Uncle Everett’s, as well. Everyone in the paintings looked rather forlorn and aghast and sallow, as though they’d lived very hard lives and had only paused for a brief moment to have their paintings done. Again, Laura seemed incredulous at anyone opening the door for her. She leaned again towards Marta’s ear and muttered, “They must know that I’m a servant, correct?”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re guests just now,” she returned.
“So much German in this house!” Aunt Margaret said. This time, it seemed clear that she didn’t welcome it.
This caused a memory to flicker up in Marta’s mind. Years before, when she’d been a twelve-year-old visitor, her mother had forbidden her from speaking any German. This had been a bizarre time, as her mind flicked between English and German, and she wasn’t always clear which word would fly from her mouth on-command. Her mother’s watchful eyes and ears had caused her to snap her lips shut more than once, seconds before she uttered something auf Deutsch.
“Mother, they’ve only just arrived,” Ewan said. His words were reproachful, as though he understood precisely the sort of pressure Marta was under. He gestured out toward the hallway, which seemed to lead back towards the garden outside. “The clouds have cleared. Would you like to meet in the garden after you freshen up? I imagine dinner will be served rather soon.”
“We’re terribly hungry,” Marta said good-naturedly.
“Hungry,” Laura repeated, in English.
“Let me show you to your rooms,” the butler said, his voice booming.
“We’ll meet you shortly,” Marta said to Ewan, lending him a grateful smile. “Thank you.”
Marta had been given a grand room with a corner window that echoed back a beautiful view of the sweeping moors and the thick forest and the little river that snaked through the trees. The light spread out across the bed in a way that seemed almost planned, making the white of the top blanket almost blistering to look at. No, this bedroom didn’t feature a view of her Alps—but it was certainly generous. The butler placed her suitcases near the bed and said, “Now, I will show your maid her quarters.”
Laura disappeared with the butler. She cast back a frightened glance, but Marta spoke in German, “All will be well. Meet me in the garden in twenty minutes,” and Laura gave a firm nod.
The moment Laura disappeared, however, Marta’s heart sank into her belly. Exhaustion brimmed in every part of her body. She ached to slip beneath the covers of her brand-new, foreign bed and close her eyes for many, many hours.
But no. She was in England now. She had to play by the rules of this strange Auntie, a woman who seemed ill-suited to anything she didn’t fully understand.
Marta wondered how well that would play out. She imagined it would be interesting, to say the least.
“A Lady’s Touch of Sin” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
When her mother finds out that she was involved in a frantic love triangle, Marta Schnitzler is instantly being cast from her Austrian home. What awaits her is her Aunt Margaret, a tittering woman with an earnest responsibility to find Marta a match, against her wishes. While the blue-eyed beauty desperately tries to escape from her future misery, a very dashing man shows up in her life, but, to her misfortune, he is not the one her Aunt has chosen for her. But when her Aunt insists so much on a particular engagement with a Duke, should she just give up to the tantalizing stranger she just met or should she fight to satisfy the burning passion she holds for him?
Baldwin Terrence is a successful businessman and the future heir to his ducal estate. When his best friend’s cousin comes unexpectedly to visit, he finds himself surprisingly stricken by her stunning eyes, and the connection between them is electrifying. Her beauty is irresistible and tests his willpower at every turn. She’s everything Baldwin is not: a spitfire, compassionate, apt to dream and gossip and live loudly and grandly. Of course, she catches the eye of nearly every important member of society, including the dastardly Duke, Lewis Remington. The only thing he knows is that he is determined to possess her, at any cost. Will he convince her that the haven she’s longed for all her life may be lying in his arms?
Thus begins a tale of lust and heartache, full of passionate moments. But soon their burning promises are all they have left. Caught between her past and her future, Marta must decide whether she’s willing to let go of the life she knew for a love she never thought she would find. But in the end, is the choice actually hers to make? Torn between her Aunt’s will and what she desires, she has to choose between the man who sets her heart on fire and the one she despises. But can this undeniable desire between them really be buried? Will their love prove strong enough to shatter every obstacle in their way?
“A Lady’s Touch of Sin” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.