Friday, 4 May 2018

The Waterloo Legacy

The Waterloo Legacy
Chapter 1
Pennard Hall, Somerset 1815: 24th June
Having escaped to the garden, sitting alone and utterly devoid of distractions, it was so very difficult to brush aside the image of light blue eyes turning smoky grey in sunlight, and of manly lips curving to a quirky smile. Would that she could erase that special memory of her heart’s desire and the relaxed manner of his basking in the afterglow of mutual bliss. But it was all too vivid: even the remembered sweet scent of flattened meadow grasses, where they had lain surrounded by moon daisies swaying gently on a balmy summer breeze.
   Both had known the love expressed between them was oh so wrong, but heady euphoria had taken hold in the madness of the moment. Although it was true love back then, illicit love, he still expressed undying love within his letters: letters she kept hidden.
   Oh how oft she had pondered over portraits hanging in the upper gallery, and studied the likeness between her son and that of Earls’ of Weston down the centuries. Mathew’s appearance bespoke untainted bloodlines, as did that of the present earl’s younger brother, whilst her husband, the earl, resembled none of the former.
   It was quite bizarre, for Michael Melrose, Earl of Weston, was fair, with light brown eyes, and florid features. Albeit of good height, he was so unlike the taller, dark-haired, blue-eyed Melrose trait, it was little wonder there were those within society who had looked upon Michael with a curious eye. Similarities to his mother, the dowager countess, had always excused his appearance. But his sister, May, had let slip observations from time to time of a curious bent in relation to her brother’s likeness to that of an unrelated family; and the very fact the family were not of Isobel’s acquaintance, she had no means to verify May’s comments.
   Thus daydreaming, and duly caught unawares, a sudden flash of pink in her peripheral vision drew her attention, and her heart sank. Oh lordy. So often, when she slipped away to write in her journal, someone would come looking for her.
   Izzie . . . Izzie . . .” came a plaintive plea from her sister-in-law. “Where are you?”
   Holding her breath whilst tempted to take flight, instead she remained seated behind the trunk of a favoured walnut tree, half hoping the lovely May would pass her by unnoticed.
   Izzie. . . Izzie, I know you are out here, somewhere,” yelled May, quite unladylike in manner, followed by a sharp: “Isobel, answer me.”
   If May was resorting to Isobel then something was amiss, and she called out in response: “I’m here, by the walnut tree.”
   May flew to her side, cheeks flushed almost as pink as her muslin day gown, her bright blue Melrose eyes alight with excitement. “It’s over. Can you believe it? Oh how glorious it must have been for Michael, for Luke, and your brother?”
   Isobel’s heart somersaulted; part joy, part apprehension. “Over . . . you mean . . .”
   Yes . . . Yes . . . They’ve done for Boney, all over again, despite rumours of a humiliating retreat and desertion of Brussels.”
   May, excitement is all very well,” said Isobel, snatching up her journal before getting to her feet, “but remember you are a lady, not a soldier given to barrack room slang.”
   “Oh piffle and stuff-shirt,” declared May, a hand thrust to her hip in recalcitrant stance. “I’m quoting Luke’s very words, and might I remind you, I am more than of age. Besides, it’s officially declared Wellington was victorious at Waterloo. It’s all clearly written within the London Gazette, and dated twenty-second of June.”
   Isobel laughed whilst smoothing out creases from her skirts. “Have we letters, then?”
   “From Luke,” replied May, leaning forward to scoop a soft weave carriage wrap from the seat, which circled the tree.
   “Oh, then no news from Michael?”
   “Not as yet, and Luke had so little to say, hence mother is beside herself with worry.”
   “For what reason, when we are blessed with the end of war?”
   “You know mother and her intuition,” said May, as they began strolling from the lower lawn to the upper paved terrace.
   “Well yes, I do, but on such a joyous occasion as this, we should be of mind in how best to celebrate the homecoming of our heroes.”
   “My thoughts exactly, though I wager mother will never sanction preparations for a grand affair for their homecoming, which could be weeks, perhaps months hence.”
   “Why ever not, pray?”
   “My intuition tells me mother has a suspicion Luke might have been holding something back. His missive was very short, of which he dispatched post-haste on the nineteenth,” declared May, whilst trailing her fingers over a marble statuette of a shepherdess with a lamb tucked under arm. “Mother will in no way condone any celebration of Wellington’s victory, until both her sons are standing before her.”
   “But that is nonsense, for it is I who shall organise a celebratory ball for their homecoming.”
   May let slip a sigh of delight in one breath; and in the next breath, as they hurriedly ascended steps to the upper terrace, sense of unease spilled forth. “I wish you and mother liked one another better.”
   Linking her arm in May’s, she chuckled. “Your mother and I like one another well enough.”
   Piffle. Only in respectful manner, as you do with each other’s acquaintances and friends.”
   “Is that not better than mere tolerance of each other?”
   May sniffed; pointed in extreme. “I try my very best to bridge the divide between the pair of you, and I fail miserably so. And yet, both of you are as one when it comes to Mathew.”
   “Oh May . . . he’s but a child.”
   “I know, and believe me when I say: I am not in the least bit jealous of your son.”
   “Nor should you be, for your mother dotes on you.”
   “I think not, for it is Michael she dotes on. After all, don’t all mothers dote on their first born?”
   “As Mathew is my first and only child I cannot in all honesty answer that question,” nor dared she reveal the truth, for Mathew was special, very special to her. “I hope, if ever I am blessed with more children, I shall love them all with equal measure.”
   “So shall I, if ever I should find a man who will wed a girl of height matching that of a young buck. Oh, harebells, Izzie. I am all but an old maid.”
   Aware of movement within the drawing room, the garden doors before them, Isobel lowered her voice. “I would give anything to have your height and graceful countenance. Besides, you are but twenty and three years, and you have admirers at present, and soon shall have a veritable array of young titled officers returned from war and seeking a wife.”
   May paused in step and laughed: mocking in tone and mocking self. “I’m about as graceful as a goose, and although Luke is by far, a head taller than Michael, I can stay abreast of Luke at any time.”
   Preferring May’s company to that of the dowager countess, now standing watching them from the drawing room, Isobel dallied too: “I always found it impossible to keep abreast of Luke, for he used to set a gruelling pace.”
   “Yes, but you are so dainty, and Luke . . . Oh, but I don’t recall your walking out with Luke.”
   “It was but a couple of times, when Michael was indisposed with estate matters, and Harry was here, at the time.”
   “Well, of course Luke and your brother became good friends, and no doubt still are. Oh, just think, Izzie. Think what it will be like when they are all here: finally at home.”
   “Precisely, and what could be better than a grand ball to bring old friends together?”
   “But we have not set eyes on them in so long, I dare say Michael’s dark moods will be darker still or pray, knocked out of him, entirely. I do pray it is the latter.”
   Isobel commiserated with May in regard to Michael’s moods, but said: “He had much to contend with before leaving home shores, and perchance, what he saw as a weighty burden back then, will seem less so upon his arrival home. After all, he earned Wellington’s respect as that of his military attaché and spymaster in Vienna.”
   “I have oft pondered why you ever married Michael. And yes, I know it was more or less an arranged marriage, or at least, so arranged you had little choice but to go through with it.” May’s eyes purposefully collided with hers, an overtly inquisitive expression. “I have no right to ask, but do you love him, Izzie, truly love him, or is it familial love as might be between good friends?”
   “I barely knew him before we were married. Our courtship was conducted by formal letter after we had danced but a few times at Almack’s. Then of course, during that grand picnic party here at Pennard, with parents and friends in attendance, he suddenly announced our betrothal, of which my father had already approved. Thence an engagement ball was held two weeks later. All, I might add, planned and plotted between your mother and my parents without my knowledge, and as you well know, Michael and I were then married but one month, and he went off to war.”
   “As did Luke, two-months later.”
   “And Harry, likewise,” intoned Isobel, not letting May ponder too long on past events
   “Yes, but Luke and Harry had already said they were going to war, and neither of them had any of the responsibilities Michael had. By rite of his title, he should have stayed here to protect us women. What if Napoleon had won every battle and then sailed across the water with his army? What of us? What might have become of us?”
   “Don’t you see, May? That is why he went. Michael went to war to defeat Napoleon, to protect us and the country at large. They all went for that very reason and just when it seemed safe to venture home, Napoleon escaped from Elba, and thence they were again forced to take action.”
   “I might forgive Michael, in time, but I shall make my thoughts known to him. Besides, I think his recklessness in rushing off to war was to show Luke and Harry he was no liver-bellied coward.”
   “Harry would never have accused Michael of cowardice for staying here, and I cannot imagine Luke thought any differently. Do allow Michael a little respite from war on his return, before slapping a war of words to his ears.”
   May laughed. “Oh I shall like as not box him about the ears and forgive him there and then.”
   The garden door fronting the drawing room was thrust wide, and the ever imposing portly dowager countess duly stepped forth in a purple silk gown. Her countenance was somewhat austere with grey hair pinned up and tucked beneath a black lace frilled mobcap as though the silly woman had taken to mourning a great loss rather than celebrating a glorious victory. Though for once, a smile as broad as her beam suddenly swept to her face.
   “Well, Isobel, what are your thoughts on the matter of Napoleon’s defeat?”
   “Much as your ladyship’s, I should imagine, and I am so very pleased to hear Michael will be coming home,” said she, when in reality she was living in dread of his homecoming.
   “At first I had wondered at Luke’s less than informative correspondence, and having feared the worst I dressed appropriate for the coming of bad news, and now it has occurred to me, what else was there to say, other than ‘Napoleon is done for’.”
   “Precisely, your ladyship. After all, if something was amiss, it would be stated within the letter.”
   “Then dear girl, how shall we celebrate their homecoming?”
   “I had thought a ball would be a grand gesture, not only for them, but for friends and fellow officers.”
   “Then a ball it shall be, and the preparations I shall leave in your capable hands.”
   “Did I hear correctly, mother?” queried May. “You want no say, in how the ball must be organised?”
   “Good heavens. No, not at all. I am away to London; on the morrow.”
   Shocked by her mother’s statement, incredulity swept to May’s face. “Might I ask why?”
   “It is merely a matter of business I must attend to before Michael sets foot in the house.” With that said, the dowager countess let slip a furtive smile. “It’s nothing too awful, but as my eldest son is a stickler for well-balanced ledgers, there are a few discrepancies in need of setting to rights.”
   Mother,” exclaimed May. “You have not borrowed monies from . . . Oh, but you have, I can see you have.”
   “Yes dear, I lost heavily a week or so ago at carding, and must repay my dues forthwith, else my eldest boy shall see the error of my ways.”
   May’s brows arced, her tone erring moral high ground. “Michael, will like as not, curtail your expeditions to Almack’s, should he get to hear of your laying high stakes.”
   “I think not,” rallied the dowager countess, “Who shall tell him, eh? More to the point, he‘s my son, not my keeper, and I shall do as I will.”
   “As you will,” murmured May.
   “As I will,” intoned her mother, a dark look.
   And with a dismissive wave of the hand the dowager countess turned about and hurried back inside the house.
   May, let slip a deep sigh: “I do believe mother has just threatened to cut out my tongue should I breathe a word of her gambling to Michael. And how do you suppose she hid the discrepancies from Mr. Pomphrey?”
   Isobel laughed, and made toward the drawing room. “I suspect Michael was well aware of your mother’s penchant for carding long before he set sail for the Peninsular. As for Mr. Pomphrey. The dear man is simply petrified of your mother, albeit he is supposedly this household’s advisor and holder of the earl’s purse in his absence.”
   “I dare say, but how is mother to repay borrowed monies, when she was clearly short of funds in the first place?” May stopped mid-stride, as though struck by lightning. “Oh no. . . Do you suppose her intention is to sell something? Jewellery perhaps . . .”
   “If that is her only means of replacing stolen money, then it might . . .”
   Stolen?” screeched May. “How can it be construed as stealing to borrow money from the housekeeping kitty?”
   Pausing before entering the house, Isobel lowered her voice. “Let us take the scenario of a cook, any cook in any household. Or a manservant for that matter, who borrows money from the kitchen’s kitty, being that of the tin set aside for paying the fish boy and the coal merchant. Would your mother consider such action, as the stealing of monies from the house?”
   “Well yes, of course she would.”
   “Then how is your mother’s borrowing of monies from the house any different?”
   “Oh Izzie, there is no comparison.”
   “I disagree, and if your mother has to sell a jewel or two in order to replenish that of which she has spirited away, it might serve to rein back her carding hand a little.”
   “Yes, you are right, and heaven knows what Michael would say to the discovery of a theft.”
   “Precisely, and I suspect he would suppose the thief dwelt below stairs, and what of us then? Could we stand by whilst servants are questioned, humiliated, and accused of stealing money, when not one of them had a hand in the kitty tin?”
   “There is that, I grant you, but neither would I dare betray mother.”
   “Perhaps not, and I dare say it would fall to my shoulders to protect the innocent from false accusations.”
   “But Izzie, you are the countess, and you, must do, as you see fit.”
   “Oh, I see. So it is I who will be placed in the perilous position of having a quiet word with Michael, that is, if your mother should fail to cover the shortfall in household funds.”
   May screwed up her nose in mischievous manner. “He is the lord and master, and you his wife. Moreover, I would not truly have the courage to shame mother in Michael’s eyes. He is her favourite, after all.”
   With that said, May brushed past her, and fled into the house.
   Heavens above, his sister nor his mother knew him at all well, or instead chose to ignore the fact he would likely accuse his wife of having overspent on frivolous items of a fashionable bent. How then could she plan a welcome home ball and account for its expenditure?

Friday, 27 April 2018

Traditional Regency Romance: Sweet Errors

Sweet Errors, by Erato

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“Could anybody be so wonderful as Robert?” asked Elizabeth, of her sister. “Only perhaps my own Thomas,” answered Charlotte. These two sisters, Elizabeth and Charlotte Richmond, confided in one another as might the deepest of friends. They were close with each other due to a closeness of age, with Charlotte being 17 and Elizabeth just barely 19. Both were already inextricably in love with young gentlemen who were, in their eyes, the most wonderful that ever had lived. Human civilization was certainly doomed from this point forth, because these two boys, Thomas Marchant and Robert Benjamin, were the apex of all which mankind was capable of becoming, and anything that could possibly come after should be but a downward slide until humanity regressed back to the age of Prometheus. Each one of the maidens was entirely certain that a proposal would be coming any day from her respective beau; so certain that they had already taken to addressing their loves by their Christian names, an action normally reserved till a time after a proposal was had. They were seated upon the porch of their house, with the seaside in view and the gentle waves audible. Seagulls called from nearby. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon. The girls had received two small boxes of candied fruits; one for each one, and each box fitted with a short note from the beloved to his respective love. Such interactions were the high points of life for these girls, who lived in such a sleepy, seaside region. They had lived in the quiet and largely vacant region of the bay for all that time, where nothing much took place apart from the agriculture of nearby farmers. Their only other female friends had married and moved on the year before, leaving Thomas and Robert as the sole occupation of the Richmond sisters. “Thomas writes me,” said Charlotte, her heart pounding and eyes fluttering as she spoke his happy name, “‘To my beloved Charlotte, may this candy be as sweet as you are!’” No less proud, Elizabeth pulled her note. “And my Bobby writes, ‘My sweetest Elizabeth, no candy compares in sweetness to you!’” Thomas and Robert were in fact best friends who spent nearly every day together. They had met the two sisters at the same time. Since then it had grown into a game between them as to whom should display the better job of courting. The sisters were pleased enough with it -- they were reaping all the benefits of these attentions, and it made them feel so happy and special that such handsome, sweet boys were pursuing them at once. Indeed, it was so good of them to do it at once, that there shouldn’t be any jealousy between sisters! But still, each girl took pride in a private certainty that her beloved was doing just a little better than her sister’s chosen one. The girls were almost as competitive as the boys were, when it came to outdoing the other. They were sitting out on the porch of their home, where the boxes of candy had been delivered by a footman. A footman! Someday that could be a footman to one of them! The girls opened the boxes and began eating the candies, each insisting that hers must be the best candy, and sharing some samples in hopes of gaining confirmation. “Oh, nothing could possibly be better than this candy which Bobby sent!” “Thomas surely lacks nothing in taste, do try this, I think you will change your mind!” “Oh! So good! But taste this, and tell me if not Bobby has done it to find the most delicious of all sweets!” So it went. After the girls had eaten all their candy, they returned into the house to write thank-you-notes-cum-love-letters to the boys. The Richmond house was a lovely, large, stone building as befit the lives of what was called at the time “the middle class.” This meant they lived in a rather large house -- even if it had one time been a farmhouse. Their home was in Somerset, about a half-day’s ride from Bristol, with views of the channel delivered by the home’s broad, white-trimmed front windows. Their father and mother were often away from the home attending to business affairs, either with the ships at port or their farmland in the north. At the moment, the girls’ old maiden Aunt Belinda was residing at the home for the purpose of looking after them. Elizabeth and Charlotte were unquestionably young and silly; there was no desire on anyone’s part to leave such girls to themselves for long, as their unrefined little brains would doubtless lead them into trouble, if left to guide themselves. Upstairs, with ink and paper, the two lovestruck maidens started to discuss what might be appropriate to write to such beloved beaux for such beloved gifts. “We ought not make the letters too familiar,” said Charlotte, “or it could seem improper.” Elizabeth initially agreed, but then added, “yet, I should be nothing but honest with Bobby, for I do cherish him too, too much to tell him anything other than what is in my heart.” And Charlotte, too, was overbrimming with love, and sought to be honest with Thomas on her sister’s lead. And thus did Charlotte compose the following:
My dearest Thomas, How happy I was to receive the box of sweets from you, the most delectable of any I ever had, for you have chosen so well, as only you could do, for that you know me so well, and love me so well, as I love you. You know I can only be happy when I am around you, and by having eaten the candies which came from your hand, it is like I am around you at all times. My heart is all yours and beats only for you, and I cannot wait to see you again, because I love you so much, as no one else has loved another.
Love, Charlotte Richmond.
And Elizabeth composed a similarly horrible note:
My darling Bobby, The candies which you have sent are such a delight to my senses and the sweetness of them reminds me so much of your own sweetness and dear heart. I shall keep the box in which they came, forever, in my own bedroom, and when I look upon that box, I shall always think of you, and my strong affection for you, my dearest Bobby, as I go to sleep, and you know how much I love you and cannot wait to see you again. Please write to me, for I will die if I do not hear more words from you soon!
Utmost love, Elizabeth Richmond.
And the two girls folded and addressed their notes, and hurried downstairs with the papers in hand, searching for their man-of-all-work Mr. Colin who would be able to deliver the letters to the respective Thomas and Robert. “Colin! Colin!” they called out like little baby birds peeping for food, standing there in the drawing room hoping for him to come.The presence which appeared in the room was not the good man Colin, but Aunt Belinda, a dark shadow of a creature even when she dressed in the gayest of colors. That bitterness and intensity of character was probably what had cost her a chance to ever win a husband, although at this time in her life she was pretty well settled into her routine of an unhappy old maid, and had even discovered some degree of satisfaction within that role. It allowed her a measure of freedom, and though it forced her to rely on the charity of relatives for her income and upkeep it was, realistically, a more tolerable condition than a woman like her should have discovered in married life.“Now what is this?” asked Belinda, coming forward. “What is it you girls are about?”“We look for Mr. Colin, to deliver these letters for us!” said Elizabeth.Belinda did not even need to demand to see the notes, the girls were so proud of them and confident as to their contents that they each shoved them in into her face directly, expecting to receive her praise and approval for the heartfelt words inside. Belinda took the notes and began to look over the the words which were written. “What have we here...? Oh, dear… Oh, this letter is even worse... Girls… this will never do!”Belinda tore the letters in half at once. Elizabeth and Charlotte’s cheery expressions flopped to the floor. They demanded to know what the problem was.“Girls,” said Belinda, “these letters are astoundingly improper! A thank-you note should be permitted, but these love-letters -- !” She couldn’t even bring herself to explain how improper it was for two unmarried girls to write such things. “Do you care nothing for propriety?”“What need is there for propriety?” Elizabeth boldly stated. “We are in love! There is nothing that needs to be hidden from love!”“You think this is love?” asked Belinda, rhetorically. “And it conquers all…” said Charlotte, airily parroting some words she once had heard somewhere, but did not truly comprehend herself. Belinda shut her eyes tightly, feeling a slight headache coming on as she tried to think of how to explain the problem at hand to these young creatures who did not yet understand the ways of the world. She knew, from her place in it all, that there were indeed times when you had to make a rude dismissal to the world and not concern yourself with what it might or mightn’t expect of you, for the sake of your own happiness. This, however, was not such a time. “You must maintain some sense of decorum, for the sake of others,” began Belinda, “and for your own sakes, too. Have you at all paused to think what might become, if this relationship does not proceed as you have planned?” The girls were skeptical -- such a thing would never happen, ever. In all possible twists and turns of fate, their boys would always be at their side. “Robert loves me too much to ever think of leaving me,” insisted Elizabeth. “And my Thomas, too. How can you say such things, Aunt Belinda?” pouted Charlotte. “You know so little of the world,” responded Belinda. “The emotions of men are very strange and fickle. They might seem on the verge of a proposal on Monday, then Wednesday elope with someone else…” and bitterly she added, “and then come snooping back your way on Friday in spite of it. I assure you, it is in your interest to take precautions when interacting with these men, until such time as you have actually received a proposal. And even then be ever on your guard, for they can change their minds and hearts at any time.” The girls shot back with complaints that Aunt Belinda was being ridiculous and simply did not know Thomas and Robert like they did, and that she was disgracing these honest and trusty men with such accusations. Belinda was unmoved. “I have seen a few more men in my years than you have, in your youth,” she said. “Men have an amorous nature -- even moreso than us ladies, I daresay -- though they might try to conceal it out of pride. They long for the companionship of us women, but, they are so inclined to long for it that they are little satisfied even upon gaining the treasure which they have sought! Thus they move onward to the next one, and fancy that this is their right. They see no cause to be tied down with a woman, if their interest sends them elsewhere. (Of course, this same behavior in a woman should be treated as an outrage that no man would abide!) But they do it because they are able; like bees moving from one flower to the next. Being happy with one lady is not considered reason enough to defer another -- if one is good then why should two be not better? That is their motto. And as for your gentlemen, even if it seems unlikely at this time, you must act with the understanding of such a possibility overlooming. Do not be too free with them, or, if you should find you need to seek husbands elsewhere, on some future day, you might find your reputations too much tarnished to attract another.” Elizabeth was still skeptical. “If they seek out just any woman then why should it be a problem? If the men of the world are as bad as you claim, should not a tarnished lady be as appealing as a pure one?” “No man complains he is with a whore, if he is with one,” answered Belinda, “but the other men, and ladies too, will have no scruple in pointing out that he is with one; and that may be enough to withhold him from returning to her.” The girls were getting tired of the upright postures in which they were caught; their legs were beginning to ache, and they were beginning to take seats upon the parlor furniture, which was in a modest, elegant, sturdy design of dark woods and chairs with buttoned squabs upon caned seats. The young ladies posed boredly, looking like little porcelain figurines as they continued to listen to Aunt Belinda’s harangue against men. “Never grow arrogant and think that a man loves you too much to leave you,” continued Belinda. “Such a mindset is a fool’s paradise. The strongest lover can love someone else just as strongly, and it does not take much to usurp his interest. Unfool yourselves, and behave, at least, as if you know and comprehend the danger you are in.” Then Belinda forced a smile, as charming as she could make; for she was not trying to break the hearts of the girls, only to free them from dangerous illusions. “Now, darlings,” she said, “why not go back upstairs and compose some fresh thank-you letters to your gentlemen friends?” With their once excited smiles now fully erased, Elizabeth and Charlotte proceeded back up the stairway, mouths downturned and eyebrows knitted into furrows.

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Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Duchess of Destiny (An Allingham Regency Classic)

Chapter One

‘Hurry up, or the milk will have curdled!’
A titter of laughter rippled through the company. The tall figure of Gabriel Claremont, Duke of Amersham, Earl of Rycroft, Baron Everard, draped itself negligently against the warm stone of the building. His hands were thrust deep into his pockets as he surveyed the motley band of companions who had walked with him to the dairy. A pair of intensely blue eyes tempered an otherwise saturnine expression.
Elinor felt a poke in her ribs, then Martha handed her a tray laden with glasses of frothing milk. Scrambling up the steps of the creamery, she almost cannoned into the duke.
     ‘Less haste, girl, or there will be no milk left to drink.’
     There was another titter. Half a dozen men and women had arranged themselves at intervals around the little ironwork tables scattered along the terrace. This was the latest ton fad, Martha had told her, to drink milk straight from the cow.
     ‘Your Grace.’ Elinor curtsied briefly and handed him a glass.
    For a moment he towered over her, one of the few men she’d encountered tall enough to do so. Dressed in riding-breeches and top boots with a Belcher handkerchief loosely knotted about his neck, he was unlikely to pose a challenge to Brummell, but though he was perfunctorily dressed, his broad chest exuded an uncomfortable male strength.
   She snatched a quick glance at his face and a lead weight nudged a path to her heart. It couldn’t be him. He was too young. Far too young to have known her mother. He seemed strangely familiar, though, and she looked again. Yes… she was certain he was the man who last evening had sent her headlong into a ditch. His air of casual disdain spoke an imperviousness to dairymaids and travellers alike. She had been forced to gather her skirts and leap for her life, catching only a flash of an upright figure, dark hair flying, before the racing curricle with its gilded crest was gone in a haze of dust.
    ‘So what happened to Letty?’ A man a few paces away sneered, his face weary with dissipation.
    She met his look. His thin lips appeared to have been reddened, and was that rouge he wore on his cheeks? ‘I don’t know, sir,’ she forced herself to say.
    ‘Don’t try to gammon me, girl! Servants know everything.’
    He was a truly horrible man and she would have liked to throw the milk in his face. How on earth had she come to be in this situation? When she’d made her dawn escape from Bath, she’d realised that she was burning her boats. But this! 
    ‘Don’t you talk?’ It was another of His Grace’s friends, a wispy young man wearing the tightest coat Elinor had ever seen. ‘Pretty high and mighty for a dairymaid, eh, Gabe?’
    The duke had said nothing seeming not hear his companions, but she had felt him studying her intently. Now he turned to her.
    ‘What is your name?’
    ‘Nell Milford, Your Grace.’
    ‘Nell. Short for Helen or Elinor or perhaps Margaret?’
    ‘Elinor, sir.’
    She had hoped no one would ask that question since she’d deliberately chosen Nell as a far more likely servant’s name. When yesterday she had rounded that final bend in the road and seen the formidable gates of Amersham guarded by soldiers, she’d been suffused with panic. This couldn’t be Amersham Hall - she must have taken the wrong road out of Steyning. She had walked through a quiet and green landscape, the hedgerows filled with the sweet scent of late May, but now with dusk falling she found herself stranded - outside a strange mansion in a strange locality, a lone woman, shabby and unkempt from two days’ travelling. She would have been laughed out of sight if she were to ask for charity and a bed for the night. The older guard’s question had been a lifebelt saving her from drowning. Was she the new dairymaid? Just pretend, she’d told herself, just pretend. ‘Yes,’ she’d said, and her voice had rung steady. ‘I’m the new dairymaid, Elinor… Nell Milford.’
    ‘Elinor,’ the duke was musing now, ‘an elegant name.’ 
    ‘Elegant figure too,’ guffawed a high-complexioned man sitting nearby.
    ‘I prefer Letty’s, don’t you know.’ It was the tight coat. ‘A body you could get hold of.’
    ‘And did, Hayward, as I recall­­ - ­­­­­­­frequently.’ This from the florid man. ‘Too frequently by all accounts. It’s no wonder she had to leave.’
    ‘Don’t be sad, Nell,’ the man addressed as Hayward coaxed. ‘You may not be such a plump pigeon, but I’m sure you have other attributes. She’s mighty pretty, ain’t she, Gabe?’
   The duke ignored him and continued to lounge against the dairy wall, an expression of distaste on his face. His gaze wandered from her to the glass of milk he held and back again, and she watched his hesitation with inner amusement.
   He put the glass down after only one sip and roused himself to say, ‘Take no notice of my friends, Nell. They have yet to learn their manners.’
    ‘I don’t, Your Grace.’ She thought of the locket secreted in her dress and her resolve stiffened. ‘Courtesy does not come naturally to all.’
    ‘Listen to that - and from a servant.’ The rouged man had risen from his chair as though he would come towards her. She had to quell an overpowering urge to flee.
    ‘Off with her head, eh, Weatherby?’ someone quipped.
   The duke seemed to have disappeared into his own thoughts once more, oblivious of his companions’ pleasantries. They deserved each other, she decided. He might be good looking in a careless fashion, and no doubt he was extremely wealthy, but he was as haughty and ill-mannered as they. Her leap into the ditch yesterday had been a foretaste of what was to come. She should have kept walking past those gates.
   Or should she? She had nowhere else she could go, that was the stark truth. She had not made a mistake. There was no other Amersham Hall in the district and this grand house was indeed the one she sought. For now at least she had employment, a roof over her head, and food in her stomach. But the notion that there could be any possible connection between her, this enormous property, and the heedless pleasure seeker standing so close, was nonsensical. As she had always suspected, Grainne had been delirious, her words provoked by fever.
    ‘Good morning, Gabriel.’
   A new voice had entered the fray. A neatly attired gentleman, no older than the duke himself and with a passing resemblance to him, was strolling towards the creamery from the opposite direction. His demeanour was one of a modest man and he had a pleasant but unremarkable face. The duke did not seem particularly pleased to see the new arrival and made no attempt to greet him beyond a brief nod in his direction.
   The man ignored the rest of the group and instead turned to Elinor. ‘I am the duke’s cousin, Roland Frant. I live close by at the Dower House. You must be the new dairymaid.’
   She nodded her agreement.
    ‘And this is your first morning?’
    ‘It is, sir.’
    He looked closely at her face. ‘I hope that you will happy here.’
    ‘I’m sure I will, Mr Frant.’ Her voice did not hold conviction.
    ‘Might I ask for a glass of milk, too?’ He gestured to the table where half-empty tumblers were scattered in disarray.
    ‘I will fetch it, sir.’
   Escape at last. She wondered if Roland Frant had seen her agitation and deliberately allowed her to disappear.
    ‘Spoiling the fun, Frant?’ the thin-faced man jeered. Roland merely smiled complacently.
    ‘Show’s over, folks.’ Hayward jumped to his feet, seeming keen to be gone now that the entertainment was at an end.
    ‘Why do you have such a killjoy for a cousin, Gabe?’ the thin-faced man asked.
   Gabriel Claremont did not answer. Instead he said, ‘I need to check on the stables. Emperor looked as though he was throwing a fever last night and I want him ready for the races on Friday.’
   Gabriel could not be sure which warranted his greatest contempt, Roland’s ingratiating airs or the boorishness of his friends. The word ‘friends’ was a misnomer; he had no friends, just people who gravitated towards his power and wealth and helped him fill the endless hours. When he’d first returned to England, he had welcomed any company. Jonathan was dead and he was distraught. He must take his brother’s rightful place, play the imposter, or so it felt. No wonder he had surrounded himself with a wall of mindless chatter and pointless action. It had insulated him from reality since he could not face the world undisguised. Life became one long dream through which he blundered, never quite hearing the voices or feeling the handshakes, never quite present. Day after day, month after month, time had blurred and been filled with an indeterminate noise that kept the void at bay. The ramshackle crowd he entertained had been that noise, but they were not his friends. They never would be. Jonathan had been his only friend and he was dead.
   Something about the girl had reminded him of his brother, not that he needed any reminder, for the memory never left him. He wasn’t certain what it was about her. Not her colouring for sure; that pale skin and those green eyes were striking in the extreme. Maybe it was the shape of her face or her tall, slender figure or just her expression - resolute and undaunted. It was an absurd connection to make, but he’d been so caught up in the fantasy that he’d hardly registered what his companions were about. He should have realised what was happening and stepped in to protect her. Instead it had been left to Roland to stop the spiteful bantering. Roland, the tell-tale of their childhood, the sly manipulator of their adult years.  
   The truth was that he lived too much in the past. But this morning, as he’d watched her and noticed her every movement, past and present had fused together. She was certainly an unusual dairymaid. Her face was too refined and her voice too cultivated, but cultivated or not she must be Letty’s replacement. She was as slim as Letty had been an armful. Slim and fashioned grey. Only the white close-buttoned bodice relieved the Quaker hues and that had been starched into subjection.
   She had waited while he drank the wretched milk, eyes downcast and hands clasped demurely in front of her. He’d been silently cursing this latest craze of ton society and grimacing in distaste when the girl’s hands had most definitely twitched. Curiously he’d allowed his glance to travel upwards. She was looking directly at him, her eyes the shade of misty lake water, but seemingly lit by an inner delight. She had been laughing at him! Her wide mouth, far too wide, had trembled slightly as though in danger of breaking into irrepressible laughter at any moment. And though he’d stared back haughtily enough, he’d been fascinated. Seeing his look she had lowered her eyes once more and stilled the vagrant hands. An unusual dairymaid indeed! For the first time in years, he felt curiosity stir.