His plan was well underway.
Making his way through the expansive estate grounds, his eyes roamed the area. The ferns, the grand mansion with its gables and impressive limestone structure, the courtyard, curricles, and several other luxuries.
Well, they are about to be.
As soon as he settled the menial task of getting the lady’s agreement, he had no doubt she’d concede. A lady had little sway in such delicate matters after all.
The sun weaved in and out of the clouds, acting a bit like a woman reluctant to hand out her favors.
The events of the past years danced through his mind.
Seeing a hawk glide through the glen on the northernmost part of the property, his thoughts flapped and took off with the bird of prey.
Three years ago, his brother, Robert Longman – the Marquis of Rose – died in a duel.
In Ralph’s opinion, his death was well-deserved.
Robert was selfish and self-absorbed. Nay, he was worse. According to the clacketing tongues, he was accused of cheating while gambling.
Like the fool he was, Robert pulled out his gun and challenged his opponent to a duel. He always did think too highly of his own prowess.
The old miser, the Duke of Brisbane, was devastated by the news, and so was Robert’s wife. His father withdrew into reclusion while the young widow mourned the loss of her husband.
“Son, it’s best we talk about my impending death,” the auld man had called Ralph to his sickbed just a fortnight ago with his raspy voice and frail body spread out on the mattress, the smell of dried rushes filling the air.
“We will hear nothing more of this shallow talk, father. You are yet hale and hearty.”
Clutching his senile hand and pretending to care a great deal about the auld mon in his home in Dundee was mayhaps; one of his greatest acts, rivaling even the playacting of those vulgar actors and actresses in the theaters.
“You have not come to face the possibility.” Charles Longman laid quivering on the bed, his rotund stature pressing into the pelt rugs. “Looking back, I see that it is unfair the way I have neglected you after the death of your kin.”
If he was referring to Ralph’s mother, he could let it alone. There was no forgiveness to be had. But Ralph did what was expected of him and tapped the back of his father’s bony hand for assurances. “It’s in the past.”
“I will make up for–” A bout of coughing racked the duke’s fragile form, and Ralph stepped back a bit. Cases of cholera and typhus were breaking out everywhere from the industrial pollution and environmental hazards.
“Say nothing more, Father.” His glance skipped to the young groom keeping watch some feet away. It paid to have a witness.
“Following my death, I confer my title to you. You will be the next Duke of Brisbane, and my estates and holdings will be devolved to you, lad.”
That was the moment he was waiting for. Growing up as the second son, Ralph had had to reconcile himself to his lower position. A position that gave one nothing; and forced you to make your way through the dregs and strictures of the Scottish feudal system.
Robert deserved nothing but got everything, even the hand of a lady that was far above him. Now that Ralph had everything within his reach, he intended to grab it.
Every beautiful inch of it.
Licking his lower lip, the sweat trickled down his back. The air in the room felt stuffy with the chamber pot next to the bed contributing to the stench in the expansive room that had once looked formidable in its heyday when trestles and pelt rugs were still in vogue.
“While I accept the responsibilities that come along with this fixture, I cannot help but wonder if perhaps there’s more to aim for.”
The glazy eyes of the duke turned to him with a raised eyebrow.
“Don’t trouble, Father. I am only thinking of the family’s legacy. The only respectable thing to do to keep the memory of my dear brother alive…” At dear brother, Ralph’s expression soured but the distasteful expression was overshadowed by the swift recall of his facial muscles, “…is to take Robert’s widow and make her my future Duchess.”
A chamberlain dashed inside, her steps hesitant as her gaze cut between the groom and the younger son. Not sparing her or the butler a glance, his words were laced with concern. Only concern, he had to be careful in holding back any emotion that cast the slightest doubt on his noble emprise.
The Duke’s eyes widened in surprise, his confusion and apparent pleasure at Ralph’s words fixed themselves on his weathered face, the creases on his forehead settling in place. “You will do that? Make that sacrifice for the good of the family? For your old man?”
Ralph could see regret for years gone by and confusion that the son he had treated shabbily was now aspiring for more.
If only he knew.
“Father, I find that prioritizing the family’s name and doing the proper thing are one and the same in this case. My own interests have no room for assertion. It’s what Robert would have wanted. The poor madame is probably flummoxed by the life of loneliness stretching out before her. And we all know how little chance there is for dowagers and widows to make it in society.”
Out of the corner of Ralph’s eye, he observed a sneer on the faces of the underlings, but when he glanced their way, only servile courtesy graced their comportment. They had better comport themselves or suffer the cold braces of unemployment and run to Glasgow for backbreaking work like the rest of their ilk.
The duke lifted his head above the cushion, during his motion, the young chambermaid hurried to his side to help him gain his balance.
“You have my blessing, Ralph. To see you…” A cough, “To see you placing others before your own needs truly warm my heart.”
“Your happiness is what matters, dear Father. Rest well now.”
The younger son’s fussy, solicitous manner was all for naught. The old miser was still alive weeks later and was carrying on with the affairs of the Scottish counties and parliamentary duties but at least he named Ralph the fief lord and possessor of the lands and titles.
With satisfaction Ralph saw; the dark huddled form of the dame bent over the grave in the back of the Longman’s estates. She stiffened a moment before glancing his way.
Ralph could see the shock on her face, the dusty pink of her skin and the understanding that froze her features. Certainly, she saw his smug appearance. Och, it was pleasing to see her come to the realization that he had decided to carry out his promise.
She had brushed him aside the last time they spoke, had she not?
By the rood, let me see her try that now.
How did he find me here?
That was the first question on her mind. Eist, her ladymaid, Elspeth, must have spilled the beans. Or any of the stewards. Everyone knew that she visited Robert’s grave just before Vespers.
A change of routine was in order.
Though Grace could not hide the disdain on her face, she could give him a measure of respect so it resembled casual curiosity.
She had no doubt whatever of the reasons that brought him to the estate.
His delight at the turn of events over the last three years had been most apparent, culminating in the eventual decision of the Duke – her father-in-law, a powerful Alderman and a Lord of the Parliament – in making Ralph the heir apparent to his vast holdings.
There were hints that he might decide to ask for Grace’s hand. His cagey behavior and direct gaze these past weeks made her come to the conclusion that things might be taking a turn for the worse.
If only Robert were still alive.
Grace’s husband, the Marquis of Rose, Lord Longman had been a fine young man, but he was susceptible to incitement and could be easily goaded.
He had died in a duel three years ago from a gunshot wound to the chest at the hands of the son of the Lord High Admiral.
Quickly, shillings changed hands and the story shifted until the boy of mere seventeen summers was all but free to walk away.
Any casualties from a duel couldn't be taken to the courts as it was called ‘judicial combat.’
Grace recalled the grief, the pain, and the speechlessness when the news was delivered to her.
Robert’s fair face and liquid blue eyes, so much like hers, absorbed her attention until she was all but dipped into the abysmal shallows of the past, defenseless to stop the onslaught of memories.
“My lord, pray tell me, when will you be returning?”
Robert with his usual saunter looked at her from behind the gold-edged mirror that a lackey held up for him. “A gentleman never can predict his movements. There are too many enterprises to while away one’s time.” Then he sidled right next to his wife, where she was brushing out the tangles in her hair. “I know you are eager to see me stay away from the gambling tables.”
“You, mi’lord are ken to take note of my apprehension these past months. The attraction to the gambling tables and places of less repute are beginning to sway you away from the charitable works that we are known for amongst our peers. It concerns me both as a wife and as a Marquess–”
Grace’s relationship with her husband of two years had been a conventional arrangement. It was a marriage of convenience between her ambitious father and his friend whose heir apparent was taken in by Grace’s beauty and elegance in London ballrooms.
Without much ado, the decision was made, and she was informed of her pending marriage a week prior to her wedding.
She could only grumble but had no choice other than to acquiesce.
Fortunately for her, her marriage was an amenable one and when she thought of her London friends and their not-so-lucky arrangements, it was safe to say she had fared better.
Until that fateful day.
Robert broke his promise, he visited one of the parochial inns in Belhaven, Dunbar famous for binge-drinking and drunken reverie, and there he breathed his last.
Leaving his poor wife to the vultures and falcons.
Now, years down the line, his young wife was being used as a pawn to expedite someone else’ ambitious flight up the social ladder.
Robert’s death was painful. They had formed a peaceful and respectable union, even if great love wasn’t present, not that the mercurial emotion should matter to ladies and madams of substance.
Unlike the usual customs of burying the dead in Neolithic cairns with wooden roofs or in church backyards, Robert was buried in his home. The home he loved. The home that was now hers.
And looking straight into the malevolent eyes of this oily, repulsive character, Grace realized the vultures were once again at her threshold.
“Lord Ralph, it is unusual for you to come calling at this hour.” Grace’s gloved hand rose to shield her face from the glare of the waning sunlight. The elegant lady turned away slightly to discourage any illusion of cordiality.
The breeze stirred the bouquet of chrysanthemum and wild lilies lying in a heap on the ground in front of the tombstone. Fleetingly, the epitaph jumped out in front of her. Robert Longman, Marquis of Rose, a beloved son, a great leader, and a devoted husband, 1788 – 1814.
To see the entirety of a man’s life summed up in a few hassled lines did not make the essence of life flattering.
Folding her gloved hands demurely in front of her, the breeze blew the hem of the inverness a certain way, and quickly she rushed to steady the coat.
“Dare I detect a note of disapproval in your tone, Lady Longman? I believe paying a visit to you from time to time is to be expected. You are after all a beloved kin.”
His words might seem benign, but she had known Ralph long enough to understand there was nothing benign about him or his deeds. He had an ulterior motive.
Like her mother would say, ‘bide your time.’
“It is a beatific thing to find myself so blessed with such an earnest family, but I must beg you not to go to the trouble for me. My late husband has left me comfortably settled. I am adjusting to my new role everyday.”
If he was perceptive, he’d deduce the steel in her voice. Either he was obtuse or remained staunchly indifferent to Grace’s feelings, he took a step closer, his eyes flashing with ire and repressed umbrage. “I, along with everyone else, feel the need for you to be under firm authority.”
Wait…what? Och, her seeming plight was giving him grits.
Squaring her creamy shoulders the way her governess had taught her to, Grace lifted her chin a notch and regarded him as she would a pesky fly that had suddenly flown under her nose and needed to be batted away. “Robert was of a mind that I am capable of standing on my own. And I don’t intend to stop doing that, especially after his demise.”
The blasted man took another step forward, his stiff cravat knitted tightly around his neck.
I hope he chokes.
“What is appallingly clear to me is that my brother’s hand was sorely lacking in properly disciplining you and putting you in your place.” A sneer revealed crooked, stained teeth. “With me, there won’t be such a problem.”
Grace barely stifled a gasp. Seach! Does he mean what I think he means? No man has ever taken a belt to me.
Some old and discarded tidbits of rumors came crashing into her at the same time his sneer widened into open and lewd appreciation.
“He’s known for his eccentric appetites.” Elspeth had warned.
“He’s like every man, different palates and different culinary demands,” she had replied to Elspeth with a small grin.
“Nay, my lady. Tis something entirely different. Among the peasants and villagers, the Earl is feared.”
At that point, Grace had stopped crocheting – not that she was doing a good job anyway – and gave Elspeth a frown, “I haven’t heard anything amiss.”
The lady snorted without a care for manners or etiquettes. Sometimes Grace wished to be like the burgess, less guided, more liberal.
“My lady, ye ears are too delicate for such rough talk. And not a one lassie will want to tattle to ye. Ye brother-in-law, my lady, is a wee bit of a libertine, permit my saying so, but it’s true. Nobody will tell ye but the uhm, coquettes that his lordship frolics with know this to be true.”
“The King will box your ears, Elspeth if he hears you talking so.”
“What would the king be concerning himself with the likes of us peasants?” Elspeth laughed hard, her eyes shining with humor.
The topic was diverted from there to other topics deemed more suitable such alarming news of her brother-in-law continued to spring up every now and then until Grace couldn’t dismiss the truth behind the rumors anymore.
“Be assured, there will be no problem as to that matter.”
Mistaking her words for acquiesce, his chest puffed out, his waistcoat and leggings making him appear like a stuffed peacock. “I have decided that it is best that you become my Duchess.”
I was right after all. His reason for being here is not a thing of joy.
In the distance, on a knoll visible through the ridges, the leaves of an ancient oak tree swayed in the breeze, bowing to the indiscernible tunes of the May weather.
“The marriage will be taking place in late August. Preparations are already in place; I will need you to oversee the arrangements. The Rector will drop by later in the day, and I will attend to the affair of properties and investments.”
There it was. He wasn’t after her but her fortune.
“And if I refuse?”
His shiny Hoby boots crushed the hapless tufts of grass underneath his heels as he fixed her a wilting look that showed how much worth he placed in her words.
Her bonnet flew off her head from the gust of wind drifting through the air. In her agitated state, she let down the bonnet and it fell to the ground.
“A long time ago, I tried to court you, remember? But you brushed me aside like a twig and instead turned your sights on my spineless older brother. Now I have you right where I want you, and there isn’t a thing to be done about it.”
He was evil; she knew it. Grace could see the specks of malignancy brimming in those slimy, drab brown eyes. Unlike Robert, he was short, wiry, and moved like a man in constant battle with the wind.
His words took her back to the ballroom in Westminster, London.
It was summer, and Grace was invited to a summer house party; a soirée. Robert and his slippery eel of a brother were in attendance.
The ball was another social function amidst the endless social whirl she was thrust into. Her feelings or desires mattered not. No one cared that she was interested in books, not crotchety. Interested in charity work, not driving through Hyde Park in hopes of catching the eye of a respectable man of the ton.
Her father, the Baron of Livingston, was in debt, having gambled away a huge part of his fortune. He was relying instead on his daughters’ marriages to save him from ruin.
Since Grace was the oldest amongst her sisters, she was the first in line to be pushed into the fray.
“I admit it is a delightful thing having you grace us with your presence this balmy afternoon.” Robert with his playful and smooth voice echoed behind her.
Grace recognized the voice. The man had been calling on her these past weeks, making the household rife with gossip of an impending proposal that she did not pay any mind to.
“Lord Longman, I have to say, if you intend to stay in my good graces, you have to do away with the cliches and hackneyed words. They don’t work on me.”
Another thing her mother and governesses were forever reprimanding her for: Grace’s unabashed tongue.
The rules of engagement and proper etiquette always seemed like balderdash to her. What use was it knowing how many times to stir your tea? Or how great a cosmic weight it was to have your spoon not scrape the bottom of your teacup?
To society, it was an offense that propelled earthquakes and mass death, an offence that was almost deserving of the gallows if you listened to people whine about the faux pas.
Rosemary or Clarissa or any of her other sisters might be schooled into the proper lady, but Agatha, her governess, would tell you that she had failed in molding Grace in that regard.
Grace might look like a lady, maybe occasionally talk like one and constantly dress to fit the part, but she was what you’d otherwise refer to as a maverick.
“Lady Livingston, you’re here.” Ralph, Robert’s annoying brother joined them, much to everyone’s chagrin. She knew Robert desired to have all her attention to himself.
The younger brother’s look was bawdy and licentious, his tongue lashing out to lick his lower lip in a repulsive fashion. “You are a flowing stream to a starving man.”
“Actually, that should be to a thirsty man.” Her response was cold. Robert and Grace shared a look that his brother didn’t notice.
If you were going to say such trite things, at least have the common sense to get them right.
She was never fond of the younger sibling. While Robert came across as a fairly decent man, his younger brother did not. Around the ballroom, he already caused quite a commotion by trying to woo some of the married women and also making one faux pas after the other.
She was not particularly rigid about the rules of proper behavior as mapped out by the ton, for their standards were questionable and their demands often too asinine to be given any credit but the shifty look and manners of this man put her off.
As of now, his eyes were fixed on her bosom. The past folded away like canvas as he stepped closer, causing the irritating presence of his hand and his breath fanning her cheek. The heavy coat hid her considerable bosom, which prevented him from observing her rapid heartbeat and the fall and rise of her chest in alarm.
“Lord Longman. I resent being treated this way.”
“I will treat you the way I see fit. Robert isn’t here to tell me otherwise.”
“Perhaps the fear of being caught in this compromising situation will give you a pause.” On that note, the heel of her dainty shoe dug – forcefully into the top of his left boot, connecting through leather to bone.
His brown eyes sparkled with livid tension, and he rose his hand, only stopping the descent a moment before it could crash into Grace’s face.
She wished he had continued. Her fists were already coiled and ready.
Ralph took a breath to rid himself of his anger and let go his annoyance, “You are trying to rile me, you witch.” Looking around, he grabbed her bonnet, which was already skittering down alongside his brother’s grave and shoved it into Grace’s side. “Put that back on and go ready yourself for the inevitable.”
With a noticeable sneer, he cut his gaze between her and the gray tombstone standing proud and erect in the peaceful ornamental stream with trees forming a sort of canopy along the path.
“Mayhaps some refreshments will do you good and get you ready,” she turned his words back to him. Grace longed to add ‘for the disappointment you will be getting’ but refrained. Her hands smoothened out the pleats in her skirt. The thought of picking a stone to hit this cur in the head was beginning to look attractive, so she had to keep her hands busy.
For all her posturing and defiance, he had the power to make her bend to his will. Society wasn’t kind to women, and Grace was not the exception. If the Duke had seen it fit to give his blessing to this insufferable individual to pursue his late brother’s wife, with or without her consent, Ralph had all the backing he needed.
The petals fell off the bouquet of flowers at the side of the tombstone, stirring the air with its fragrance and sending Grace the message that immediate action was needed.
She didn’t know what scheme Ralph was involved in or how he had managed to convince her father-in-law, who had little liking for his second son, but she knew she was truly alone in this.
Alone or not, she wouldn’t give in without a fight. At the back of her mind, a deplorable feeling skimmed through her, the feeling of a noose tightening around her neck.
The lane to Byres Road was covered in muddy horse tracks from the morning rain.
The sun was shining brightly in the sky, moving out from behind the clouds and lending the air a redolent look.
Barouches and carriages passed by with their occupants waving at friends and acquaintances.
The scowl on Jacob’s face hardened at the colorful displays of debutantes and dowagers along with their dapper companions keeping a close look out for familiar faces.
The top hat sitting regally on his head was tipped forward, and hopefully blocked his face from those who might recognize the reclusive Earl of Carlisle.
Next to him, his daughter, Peggy Nott, sat with her red hair and blue eyes so like her mother’s that sometimes it hurt to look at her; Peggy glanced his way, and he saw the apprehension on her face.
Peggy was the younger of his two daughters, a precocious child with old eyes that often knew too much. Considering the loss of her mother five years ago, the lingering effects of a maternal influence wasn’t overly apparent – a fact that he had been worrying over, almost giving himself an apoplexy, but it was like they said, children were resilient.
The smile on Peggy’s face was nothing but joyful, a sincere expression of pure, unfettered emotion that made all the sleepless nights and nerves well worth it.
“Father, isn’t that your friend, the Earl of Whetenfield? And who is that next to him?”
Indeed, a glance to his left revealed the Earl with his wiry build and boisterous laugh.
Jacob turned his highbred blacks towards the left, avoiding the corns and roses pushing out from under the rocks.
Thick hedges bordered the lane on both sides of the road, making the path a narrow one for the curricle.
Pulling on the reins of the blacks, the horses came to a stop, their hooves prattling in potholes and sniffing at tufts of grass stuck to the moist earth.
“Lordy Lord, if it isn’t the Earl of Brisbane. And is that little Amy?” The Earl’s voice was as loud and rambunctious as Jacob remembered.
“It’s Peggy, my youngest.”
“How fast the young ones grow. My own Patty is almost as tall as me now.” His chest puffed out like proud papa. Jacob knew the feeling.
“And how is Lady Daniella?”
“Lady Daniella is visiting with my mother in Edinburgh. She’ll be sorry she missed you. The last time we saw you was at…” the Earl’s words trailed off into the air.
The last time they saw each other was at Jacob’s wife’s funeral – Lady Margaret Ravenhurst, the mother of his children and the love of his life.
“And who is your friend?” Jacob asked to divert the train of conversation. The condolences had been hard enough to bear, and now that they were all and done with, he could not afford anyone giving him pitying looks.
As was customary, the younger man doffed his hat in reverence, and Jacob suspected he was a knight from his shiny boots and military coat. “It’s Sir Harry Rowland at your service, my lord. His bow was deep and perfectly executed. The man’s gaze strayed to Jacob’s daughter, however and the flash of interest there vexed Jacob to no end.
Glaring a hole into his forehead, Jacob nodded, leaning forward a bit to obstruct the man’s view of his fourteen-year-old. Gone were the days when children of tender years were sent into marriage or even betrothed at birth to men for political alliances.
Margaret had been forced into marriage by her uncle who was her legal guardian. She had had no say in the matter just like many women, and it was by luck that both she and Jacob had fallen in love.
Jacob resisted his feelings as much as he could until the choice was taken out of his hands, and he was laid bare before his wife.
She had died four years ago due to a hemorrhage during delivery. The lad, a healthy baby, passed two days after his mother. Both losses were still felt to this day.
“Jacob,” she would call in that soft lilting voice that always reminded him of clans and fair maidens of the past. If it were several hundred years ago, she would have been a beauty given in marriage to one of the great lairds of the Highlands. Her cheekbones were high enough, and her ways were wild enough.
“Jacob, you promised you were going to take the dog to safety,” she would say in that soft, lilting voice, which always weakened him to his knees.
That was how kind she was. They ran into a stray animal, and she was concerned about its welfare. An animal that many ladies would not dare to touch or pay attention to.
She grabbed the shivering animal to her chest, its paws digging into her bodice while it whimpered with the cold.
“Lady Margaret, you aren’t concerned about your attire?”
Her response was, “I can be concerned later. For now, the dog needs our help.”
At that moment, it was impossible to refuse his feelings for her any longer.
As the young, passionate, and lovesick fool that he was, he pushed for her hand in marriage. He wouldn’t listen to her excuses, carefully convincing her until she saw the logic in their union. The rightness of it. Taking her hands away from where she grabbed at the hem of her gown after giving the stray animal to a lovely couple along the way, he hurried to help her adjust the dress. “My love, let me help you with your frock.”
“It isn’t a bother.” Her expression was austere but the look in her eye was heated. As she batted his hand away, he knew there would be another time to try for more...
It wasn’t long until they both had their way–with a ring on her finger and a bairn in her womb.
“What do you think the baby will be like? Will she have my eyes? Certainly not my freckles. They are morbid.”
“I love your freckles.”
“They are not fashionable. You shouldn’t talk so. You don’t care that your wife will be sneered at.” She scrunched up her nose in that regal way of hers.
“No one would dare to sneer at you. I’ll beat them with a club.”
She laughed–a genuine, deep-throated laugh that was honest and unpracticed, not the measured cackle and bared teeth that the ladies of the ton were prone to display...
“You are one unrefined gentleman. Whatever shall I do with you?”
“You wouldn’t change a thing, though; I know it.”
“No. I wouldn’t. You’re perfect this way.”
“You’re the perfect one between the two of us. You make me feel special.” She remarked, the look in her eye warming them both.
He then proceeded to show her how special she made him feel...
A dull stab of pain surfaced with the passage of time. It was still felt keenly in the recesses of Jacob’s heart, which throbbed within his chest.
“With the opening of the ball season, will Lady Amy and Lady Peggy be making an appearance? I admit my Viscountess and daughter will be pleased for their company...”
“And there will be plenty prospects for your fine daughters.” Sir Harry included.
The irritated father did not acknowledge his contribution, but she couldn’t deny the truth. For years, he led a reclusive life, becoming a hermit who lived on the outskirts of civilization, preferring to hide in the vastness of the countryside.
Pemberton County was bustling with friendly people, rolling hills, and sparkling streams. It was unlike the fast pace of London with all its pretentious lot and fanfares. While Jacob had resigned himself to a life of solitude, Amy and Peggy were just beginning a fresh chapter in their lives. It was his duty to see that their season in London was successful. Amy’s season two years before had lacked a certain flair without her mama.
Jacob intended that the same mistake wouldn’t be repeated. Peggy would have a wonderful time. Jacob would be with her all the way, to help her navigate through the crowd and chase away fortune hunters and those with less-than-honorable intentions.
“My daughters will make the right choice at the right time,” came his grumpy reply.
Minutes later, they were back on their way, riding to Hyde Park for a stroll through the streets. Maybe a trip to Almack and on to Richmond. Peggy would not feel so uneasy if she were able to see it all before the first ball of the season.
“Papa?” Peggy called, looking at him from under the bill of her bonnet with its ridiculous little sash.
“Do you think you could ever remarry?”
At the odd question, Jacob jerked the reins, confusing the animals for a moment. They began to trot to a side of the road, which was widening to allow more barouches and curricles.
Shuttering his expression, “That’s an odd thing to say. Why, pray tell, are you thinking along such lines? Perhaps the sun isn’t bright enough or the sight of all these stuffy Londoners isn’t as impressive as I imagined. Dare I say, I’m shattered.” His voice was deliberately low but full of mirth.
Peggy, however, did not share his humor.
“What do you think will happen to Amy and I if you were to just, maybe sleep and not wake up one morning?”
There was more she wasn’t saying, but from what she had revealed, he had an inkling where all of these fears were coming from.
“It is not worth worrying over. Your father is hale and hearty. I intend to remain that way for a long time. Unless of course, you are already sick of my company?”
“Father, can we leave the jest for later and talk about the possibility? Brenna’s dad recently lost his son, and it got me thinking, what if it had been you? Amy and I would be left penniless.”
“Ah! So, you are worried about not getting treats, candies, or dolls on your birthday, is that it?”
That had to be it because quite frankly, he did not know how else to answer her direct query.
“Father, you are apt to jest even when a jest is not the goal.” She scrunched her nose, and it was like looking at her mother.
“I see no need for your worries, lassie. No one will be dying any time soon. As for Brenna’s son, Marcus joined the cavalry guards at the port to keep the war under wraps. When the war took a turn for the worse, Marcus was at left in a ditch.” He stared down at her for a moment, “You don’t see me running off to fight in the war now, do you?”
Her lips shot out in a pout, but he was happy to see her expression release some of its angst. The streets turned busy towards the Hyde Park junction on the eastern corner and the street of Marble Arch on the western corner.
Jacob took the horses through the less crowded southern corner, the polluted air of London mingled with the sultry breeze of the afternoon.
“Father, what is that?” Peggy pointed at a clump in the distance.
“There, Father. Look.”
Drawing nearer to the scene, a gray gelding was prancing next to the side of the lane, its nose sniffing at a form by the roadside.
“Good lord, it’s a woman!”
Quickly, he pulled the horses to a stop and dropped his hat on the seat before rushing out with the command, “Wait here,” to his daughter.
Carefully, he approached the woman to see if she was still breathing. There was a large and thick mane of red hair flowing all around her waist. When he bent down to turn her over, the ashen pallor of her face caused him alarm.
“Father what is going on? Is she dead?”
Two fingers went to the base of her neck to find a pulse. It was not strong, but Jacob felt the steady beat. There was blood spilling out from a small cut to her forehead. He observed that her face was unusually smooth with pointed features.
Looking around the ferns, he saw a small valise thrown in the brush. “Peggy come over to pick up that baggage while I hoist her up.”
Swooping down to lift her, dirt and debris clung to her backside, but he did not bother to brush them off it. The woman needed help.
“Father, what are we going to do?” Peggy wrung her hands while he supported the limp form of the woman’s head.
He put the woman in the carriage and started on the route to the cottage. There will be time to come back for Peggy. Now, saving the woman was priority.
“If I take her to a doctor in town, rumors will be sparked and questions will be asked. Best to take her home where we can nurse her back to health.”
But through the need to help, a niggling worry snakes in. What if the strange woman dies in our care?
It hurt so much. Everywhere.
Pain rolled over her in sickening waves, and she could not do a thing to stop it. Grace felt herself being lifted and perceived the scent of sandalwood, but she quickly fainted again, giving in to the allure of blissful nothingness.
The next time she awakened, she was lying on something soft and cushy, the scent of lemon and citrus strong in the air. But the pain shot through her, and a small puff of agonized air made its way through her lips.
Grace wasn’t aware of how much time had passed or where she was. Even trying to open her eyes felt like a mighty task, the weight of her eyelids feeling like lead.
Cold seeped into her bones even though there was a source of heat somewhere close. Struggling to push her eyes open, she finally admitted that the choice was out of her hands.
Another emotion stole her breath away. The mental depression overwhelmed the physical depletion until Grace’s mind opened up unbiddenly to the past, and she was lost to it.
“Grace, you ‘ve come visiting. What are you doing here?” Her mother, a beautiful woman with graying hair and wide brown eyes looked at her, her expression carrying traces of concern and alarm in equal measures.
“Mother, let me in.”
Mother stepped aside to allow Grace entrance into the large apartment they occupied on a first floor in one of London’s terraced homes.
Over the years, the family had had to vacate the more spacious townhouse they had occupied for the last two decades and rent it out to a successful crockery maker.
With the advent of the industrial revolution, the boom in the shipping industry, cotton industry, and the construction of the railway system meant that the family had been struggling to survive. Allowances and fief rights exercised over husbandmen and cotters practically disappeared in light of several tenants and yeomen abandoning their obligations to flock to the textile mills and several factories to engage in backbreaking work.
Soon, the family could not sustain its lofty lifestyle and had to withdraw to a less reputable side of London – Bath – rife with commoners and bourgeoisies.
As she was led into the home, moving through the drawing room to the parlor further into the house, Kannagan, their old butler, moved forward to grab her coat.
“Good day madame.”
“A good day to you,” was her distracted reply.
Grace’s mother, Gina Livingston, was standing to the side, next to Amelia, the youngest of Grace’s siblings – six summers – with big, brown eyes. She was rubbing chubby hands in her eyes, which indicated she had just woken up from her afternoon nap.
She couldn’t take Amelia into her arms or offer any of the treats she usually brought along for them anytime she came visiting. This was a surprise visit, which is why the concern on her mother’s face did not perplex her.
“Mother, where is Rosemary, Clarissa?”
“They went calling on their friends. Agatha went with them.”
That last sentence pleased Grace to no end. Agatha was a hardnose. She could do without the fixed glare and air of utter dismay Agatha adopted anytime Grace happened by.
“What of papa?” That question came out sounding strained.
“Your papa is in his study, but Kanangan must have informed him of your visit, he’ll be out shortly.”
Grace observed her mother. Though she was still a beauty, one most sought after during her season in London decades ago, there was a downturn to her lips, creases on her face, and an overall appearance of shabbiness. She wasn't adapting well to the change in residence.
Grace couldn’t blame her. Bath was a far cry from Richmond and Somerset where their circle had moved about for years. Along with their residence, the family had also changed friends. Their erstwhile friends and companions quickly disassociated from them citing one excuse after another.
London and its occupants were not known for suffering loss of status.
“Again, I ask: what are you doing here? The last we heard; your brother-in-law was sending us letters hinting at a possible marriage with you. I expect you to be getting ready.”
“That is the reason for my presence here.” She took a deep breath. Her father would not approve of what she was about to say, and it was common knowledge that Gina Windslor, his wife, supported him in every decision, whether good or bad.
Grace’s mother had certainly supported him in cutting her off when she offered to help them with their finances, not that her father had had any problem helping himself to some of the inheritance generated by her marriage to Robert. Prior to that moment, a string of events had also taken place where her mother’s intervention could have helped, but she chose to remain the dutiful wife.
The distressed Grace hoped that wouldn’t be the case this time around.
“Mother, I do not wish to marry the Duke-to-be.”
Her mother frowned, “Pray tell me why not.”
Grace licked her lips, taking a minute to arrange her thoughts, “Lord Longman is a cruel man, and I refuse to be his wife.”
“You don’t have a choice, dear daughter. Lord Longman has already offered for you.”
“All you have to do is refuse him.”
Gina was flummoxed, “Refuse a Duke-to-be?”
“He has evil designs where I am concerned.” It seemed Grace was failing to convince her mother. How was she to convey to her parents that her heart was not in any agreement marrying Ralph or that the cast that clouded his eyes was not a look of kindness or benevolence.
“He is interested only in my fortune, Mother. Surely you don’t think I should be with a man with such desperate cravings for ambition and power?”
Before her mother could respond, the dark visage of Grace’s father appeared at the entrance, his walking stick by his side. He walked over into the parlor and took his seat.
“Father, a good day.”
With disregarding eyes, he dismissed his daughter's greeting,
“What is this I'm hearing? You want us to refuse Lord Longman?”
“And what reason do you have?”
That was a first for her father. He wasn’t the sort to ask for your reasons or give you a chance to voice your opinion. Mayhaps this was a chance to talk. She wasn’t given the option the first time around.
“I fear that my future with the Duke will not be a happy one, father.”
“And the other reason?”
He was looking at her but not seeing her. A thread of apprehension seized her voice. “I… I do not want to marry him. It’s not what my late husband would have wanted.”
Perhaps Grace had been wrong to come here, wrong to think that her parents would make any difference or hear what she had to say.
“And your late husband? Where is he?”
The apprehension changed to trepidation, and she began to stutter. “I...he’s…I…it’s… That is…”
“I thought you outgrew that childish silliness. Speak, child.”
At his harsh command, Grace nearly jumped out of her skin. Where was the confidence she had woken up with all week? The resolute fierceness that came from satisfaction at a plan well-laid. Grace was going to come here, lay out her complaints and have her support her, but that had clearly been foolish thinking.
When had they ever supported her?
If they wouldn’t support her, it was time to stoop low. “He hits me, Father. I haven’t married him yet, but he’s been cruel to me.” The image of the Duke’s raised arm and apoplectic face entered her mind. There’s little use feeling guilty. If he tried it once, he will try it again, probably behind closed doors, maybe even on the wedding night.
But that is one wedding she wouldn’t be having.
“Don’t do anything to rile him, and he won't hit you.”
“What?” Certainly she didn’t hear correctly? She looked at her mother and her expression told Grace that indeed, the words her father had uttered were correct.
“I shouldn’t do, Father, I won’t have him. I already fulfilled my obligations by marrying his brother, and now that he is dead, I am free to live my life as I please. I won’t marry him.”
“Since your mind is made up, it will do you good to make your way out now.”
“But Papa, please I have come here for your help.”
“You will not be getting it.” He rose to his feet.
“Please. Mother, you have to help me.”
“Your mother’s hands are tied in this. We have no other choice than to turn you away. Go home.”
The confidence drained away. “But...you can’t do this. You have to help me. Please.”
But her father was already out of sight while her mother lingered with Amelia looking up at her from behind mama’s skirts.
“Mother,” Grace rushed forward to take her mother’s hands in hers, “You have to talk to father, please. I can’t go through with this marriage.” The tears were rapidly swimming down her face.
“Dear child, you are a dowager now. You shouldn’t fill your head with the grand notions of love and fairytales. You know the place of women in society. And you know that our hands are tied. We cannot endure another scandal, not after recent events.”
The door slammed in Grace’s face and every vestige of insecurity came roaring back.
But one way or the other, she was not going to be hogtied to Lord Ralph Longman.
Grace’s eyes popped open and the scene swam before her, flickering like a firefly on the darkest night.
A young face came into view, earnest and waiting.
Ginger hair, freckles, and a smile accompanied the words.
“Father, the lady is awake!”
Her voice was so loud and unrestrained that it sent clamoring tambourines tumbling through her head, releasing the demons.
The side of the bed dipped and a man in a loose white shirt and buckskin pants leaned forward. The first thing Grace observed were his eyes.
They said the eyes were the window to the soul and quite frankly, the man’s green eyes were expressive and lively, unlike the dull luster of Lord Longman.
“Where…where am I?” Grace’s voice came out sounding croaky, like a frog.
“You’re in my cottage on the outskirts of Edinburg. I brought you here all the way from London.”
Frowning, her headache increased, “I don’t…how did I come to be here?” On the bed in a stranger’s home. The last I remember is…”
“We found you by a roadside.” The man turned to his daughter, “Peggy get Mrs. Hammond and the groom.”
Peggy rushed out to carry the order, a whirlwind of excitement and bustling youthful energy.
“You found me by a roadside?” That was not correct. Grace had been on her horse on her way to…anywhere actually, as during her flight through the country she had yet to determine a destination. She needed to get away from it all, probably retire to one of her late husband’s abandoned homes somewhere in a town. She didn’t intend to ride all the way to Scotland.
“Yes. You must have been thrown off your horse when he lost his shoe.”
Grace’s face colored instantly. She recalled flying off the horse and connecting with the cold, unforgiving ground. A hand lifted to her head, surprised at the gauze wrapped around her forehead. “I admit I am not a very skilled horsewoman.”
And her dash through the countryside was anything less than planned.
The room was quite large with a soft mattress and high ceilings. There was a small window on the left and through it slants of sunlight came in along with a cool breeze, the scent of bread, and a whiff of pines and apple blossoms.
“We found your valuables along the roadside as well.”
The man remarked when the silence in the room dragged on.
“And my horse?”
“It’s in my stable.”
Then she frowned. “How long have I been here?” She struggled to sit up, wincing at the jab of pain the movement caused.
“Easy.” The man leaned forward to assist her. The smell of sandalwood entered her nostrils and a vague memory was unlocked. She recalled smelling sandalwood recently.
A light blush covered her cheeks at her weak state. “Thank you. You’re too kind sir.”
The man nodded briskly. “You’ve been drifting in and out of consciousness for four days.”
Four days? Grace did not know what to make of that. “I...I am sorry for imposing on your family.”
“We are only too happy to help.” He moved to a small table and reached for a cup, pouring out dark liquid from a flagon.
Grace studied his face. He had a thick mane of red hair and stubble on his face. He was wearing a loose flannel shirt with a low neckline that revealed a dark, hairy chest. When his eyes settled on her, she quickly looked away, mortified to have been caught staring.
The door opened and four people walked in, immediately crowding the room.
There was an elderly woman dressed in a long day gown with a cinched waist and a bunch of keys dangling at her side, clinking together as she moved. There was a tray clutched in her hands and the smell of spices and cheese drifted to Grace.
Another man, a young groom with a small limp, was carrying a smaller tray and the smell of herbs mingled with the spices.
Next to them, there were two girls – the young girl and an older one, with long red hair and a cautious look on her face. They appeared to be sisters.
“Och, she’s finally awake.” The elderly woman moved graciously to her side, dropping the tray on the table next to her bed. She leaned over and placed a warm, motherly hand on Grace’s forehead. “It’s good to see that ye fever is broken.”
“I had a fever?” Grace’s gaze cut to the man who was standing back now and quietly observing.
“For a couple of days,” he revealed. “But Mrs. Hammond nursed you back to health with her concoctions and drafts, though the smell is enough to stir the dead.” He smiled kindly, “Mrs. Hammond, the lady is yet to take the chamomile tea.”
“I’ll take care of her like my own.” Mrs. Hammond gestured to the groom who came forward with the tray. Grabbing an empty cup and adding a bit of hot, steaming water, Mrs. Hammond sprinkled a bright powder into the water and the smell of something fetid offended Grace’s nostrils.
“Mrs. Hammond what is that smell?” The younger child bounced forward, her silk gown moving around her feet. She stood next to the elderly woman but her gaze was on Grace.
“Ye don’t want to know, dear child.” The woman croaked mischievously, instantly reminding Grace of her aunt Giselle. Giselle had passed on now, but her banter and mischief when Grace was a child were still remembered.
“These are my children, dear lady.” The man drew the woman’s attention back to him, his voice deep and authoritative. “There’s Peggy, we were together when we found you.”
“Actually father, I pointed her out to you. You’d have missed her.” Peggy was only too happy to correct her father. For a moment Grace expected a sharp rebuttal, but he only smiled and added, “Yes. Peggy is your real savior, not me.”
She watched both father and daughter closely but there was only cordiality and tolerance on the father’s face, nothing like any of her experiences with her parents, certainly not her father, whose rigid ways had all but condemned Grace to a life of flight.
“I am very thankful to you, Peggy, for your help.”
Peggy grinned, unabashed and restless. She reminded Grace of her sister, Clarissa with her impulse and gay nature.
Grace turned to the other girl who was coolly assessing the older woman with curiosity and wariness. “Hello.”
The girl curtsied elegantly, indicating her of her debut in London. Only London ballrooms could help teach you the perfect formal manner.
“There is Amelia. My elder child.”
“She is beautiful. Thank you all for accommodating me these past few days.”
“It’s our pleasure, miss. We haven’t had a visitor in a while,” Mrs. Hammond returned, lifting the cup to Grace’s lips.
Sniffing once, twice, she threw back my head and gulped down the content. The taste was gritty and unsavory and her eyes watered.
The groom came forward and added more water to the cup to wash out the gritty stains along the edge, and she was prompted to drink it.
“There. That’s good. You’ll be back to your old self before you know it. Do you have a headache?”
“Yes. A fierce one.”
“It will disappear within minutes. The brew will relieve you of your pain.” Then Mrs. Hammond brought the tray and placed it on Grace’s lap...
There was freshly baked bread, pickled eggs, prawns, apple tarts, pie, and cheese soup on the tray. There was also a mug filled to the brim with warm milk.
Grace was not hungry up to this moment, but with the presentation of such delicious food in front of her, her stomach grumbled.
Ladies do not eat in front of an audience.
The audience it seemed was waiting for her to go ahead and eat.
“Have a bite lassie.” The man prompted carefully, his blue-green eyes sparkling.
Considering the idea for a moment, she decided she was too famished to care. Taking a spoon of the soup, Grace leaned down to sip it. “This is tasty,” She remarked, observing the pleased look on the woman’s face.
“Mrs. Hammond makes the best veggie soup in these parts,” the groom inserted chirpily, and Grace smiled in response, not used to conversing with the help.
That was how it had always been back home, and the discrepancy was even enforced when Robert was still alive.
You do not frolic with the help, Grace. Not ever.
“Can I get the recipe before I leave? I'd love to give it to my kitchen staff.” In a home that had been abandoned for years.
The efforts that would go into making the cottage livable again went through Grace’s mind. Servants to employ, neighbors to visit, a life to put in order. All of these things without allowing word to spread about her whereabouts.
“I’ll be only too happy to do that. We will leave you now and be by later.”
It was obvious the two girls wished to linger but their father’s command saw them out.
Suddenly conscious of being alone with a stranger who was a man, Grace turned shy.
“We haven’t been properly introduced. My name is Jacob.”
He didn’t expect her to call him Jacob, did he? What was his title? Or maybe he didn’t have any Scottish or English title. Perhaps he was just a successful industrialist living in the rustic county.
“Or you can call me Mr. Nott.” He added as an afterthought, correctly reading her mind. Mr. Nott’s eyes fixed on Grace as if he was waiting for something.
“Oh. My manners are deplorable. I am Grace. Please call me Grace.” She rushed out.
“Grace.” The name rolled around on his tongue with a certain drawl that she couldn’t help but admire. She observed the heady masculine heat emanating from his body and scooted further away, pretending to fuss with her tray.
“No. Please. It’s just Grace.”
“Alright. I am sorry to have to disturbed you. I’ll leave you to eat your meal in just a moment.”
Nodding, she paid him attention, careful to keep her expression prim and proper. Surely, he could not know who she was, right? Grace had already taken off her wedding band.
“Please carry on.”
“At the moment, we do not have a chaperone in residence or any matron to look out for you.”
“What do you mean?”
The man pulled a chair and sat on it, clasping his strong powerful arms. “I fear there might be a cause for a scandal if you remain here without a chaperone, and you have not yet fully recovered enough to undertake a journey.”
She was yet to decide if she would be remaining here. She nodded.
“Is there a family member close by that I can call? Perhaps an aunt? So they can arrange for your transport to their home.”
“No. No family!” Grace’s response was too sharp, she saw it in the way his beautiful eyes widen in surprise. In a lower voice, “I mean, no family close by. And you don’t have to worry about my reputation. I am a widow.”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that. I too, lost my wife some years back, so you have my sympathies.”
No wonder there had been no mention of the girls’ mother. “I am sorry too.”
Jacob nodded briskly. “Well if you say there is no cause to worry, then we won’t.”
“Yes sir. Of course.” She cleared her throat, staring into her food, “Do you think perhaps there is a possibility of retaining me?” She looked up to catch his frown, “Keeping me on here as a worker or a governess for your girls? I can be quite efficient at teaching them how to navigate civilized society.”
She had organized over a hundred balls and luncheons, which gave her faith in her ability as a hostess. Being the wife of a Marquis demanded endless engagements and call to service. It was a role that she had thrown herself into with reckless abandon until it had all come crashing down on her.
“I understand if you are reluctant to hire me. I am after all a stranger who has been at the receiving end of your benevolence, but there is an urgent crisis back home that I am fleeing from. I was going to Avening Alley somewhere in Ireland before the mishap.” She paused for a moment, “Perhaps there is some good to come out of the dilemma.” She was not speaking the entire truth, but she knew better than to divulge the secret that led to her abrupt departure from home.
If her parents were unwilling to risk the wrath of the powerful Brisbane family to put in a bit of support even though the decision was ultimately out of their hands, how much loyalty could she expect from strangers, especially if the strangers were middle-class people who do not have a say in the affairs of the upper class.
“I understand the need to get away from it all, to crave a fresh start.” The look in his eye was far away, and she knew he was glancing into the past, seeing something other than strangers and draperies.
“Then you will help me?” She awaited his response like a convict awaiting a judge’s ruling.
Finally, he spoke, “You can stay here as long as you want. To avoid rumors and cruel gossip, you will be employed as the Nott’s governess, and you will see to the education of my daughters. Payment comes monthly, and it will be fair, enough for you to get by.”
“I couldn’t have asked for more. Thank you, Jacob.”
Indeed, she couldn’t have asked for more.
She had shelter, people who didn’t know anything about her, and a job to keep her busy until a better option came along.
Even as she agreed, Grace suspected a sense of kinship between the two of them. Two lonely hearts as a result of the whims and caprices of the powers that be.
This was a fresh start, like Jacob rightly said. She would not waste it.
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