About the book
When you fight someone else’s demons, you might awaken your own…
With the traumatic image of her dead parents still haunting her, Miss Eliza Bolton must balance her charitable nightly excursions and her new role as governess to the siblings of the Duke of Rosenhill.
Living in the shadow of his father’s sinful past, Arthur Huntley, Duke of Rosenhill, spends his nights helping those wronged by his family. When the new governess arrives, he is stricken not only by her beauty but also by how she challenges the deepest foundations of his beliefs.
When three crows with white arrows through their hearts appear to disrupt the fragile calm of their realities, the message is clear. Three lives must be sacrificed.
With only a few hours left to solve the riddle, Eliza and Arthur must face not only a killer but also the knowledge that the demons of their past share the same face.
Eliza Bolton’s mother shook her awake from a deep sleep.
“Eliza! Eliza! Wake up!”
Still groggy, she was rubbing her eyes. “Mama,” she asked.
Her mother urgently whispered, “Shhh. Come quickly.”
Eliza crawled from her bed and took her mother’s hand. She pattered across the cold wooden floor in her bare feet. “What is the matter, Mama?”
Her mother opened the armoire and placed Eliza inside. “Now be a good girl and remain quiet. No matter what you hear, do not come out.”
Eliza could not ignore the desperate, urgent tone to her mother’s voice. She silently knelt on the floor of the wardrobe and awaited an explanation for her mother’s behavior.
Eliza could hear the sounds of a scuffle in the next room. She heard her father’s angry voice ordering someone to get out of the house; then a grunt followed a loud thump.
“Sarah, run!” her father’s voice called to her mother from the adjacent room, followed by a gunshot.
“Daniel,” her mother whispered with a sob. Her hand trembled as she caressed Eliza’s long dark curls back from her face and placed a kiss on her brow. Eliza questioned the look in her mother’s chocolate brown eyes, a mirror of her own, “What is wrong with Papa? What is happening?” she whimpered.
“Hush now and do not make a sound.” With one last tear-filled look, her mother closed the armoire door.
Eliza was plunged into darkness. Wearing only her night clothes, she felt cold and alone as she kneeled on the hardwood floor of her hideaway. She had not even been given even a blanket to keep warm. It was very unlike her mother to pay so little attention to her physical needs. She was always telling Eliza to bundle up, or she would catch a chill.
The door to Eliza’s bedroom banged open and loud footsteps heralded someone’s entry. “Get out! Get out!” her mother demanded. Another gunshot filled the air silencing her mother’s screams. The heavy footsteps retreated.
Eliza held back a scream. She peeked through the armoire’s keyhole and swiped the sleep from her eyes. She shook unable to utter a single sound. The room was illuminated by the light of the lamp on a table by the door and the glow of the fireplace. Two dark pools of liquid merged into one as they ran across the floor over the doorway’s threshold.
Somewhere in the next room, a man’s gravelly voice ordered, “Burn it down!” She could make out shadows as they moved about, but their faces were beyond her view. She heard multiple footsteps stomp from the house, then all was quiet.
As she crawled out of the armoire, she whimpered, “Mama?” She called louder, “Mama!”
Eliza propelled herself forward into the room moving toward the dark pool of liquid. It glowed crimson-black in the firelight, beautiful and frightening. She reached down and touched it. It was warm, sticky, and smelled of copper. Her mind rebelled at the thought of what it might be. She followed the stream into the darkness and found her mother lying upon the floor face down in a pool of blood.
She shook her shoulder attempting to wake her, “Mama…” but there was no response. “Mama!” Eliza yelled. Nothing happened. Unable to rouse her mother, she turned to search for her father.
Eliza followed the scarlet stream into the next room and found her father was lying on the floor in front of the bedroom door his body blocked the path. “Papa!”
She had seen death before in animals, of course, but she had never seen anything like what she now beheld. The entire concept was far beyond a six-year-old mind’s comprehension. She fiercely shook her father’s prone form and denied what her eyes saw. “Papa!” she sobbed over and over.
As she sat by his side trembling and sobbing in fear, the room began to grow warm; sweat trickled down her face and intermingled with her tears. She heard the sound of groaning timbers and shattering glass and looked up. Flames licked along the ceiling like a thousand fiery serpents.
The room quickly filled with smoke; she choked with every breath. She squinted in search of the front door. She could just make out its rectangular frame in the near distance and nothing more.
Eliza grabbed her father’s arm and attempted to pull him towards the door. His large muscular arm was massive and slipped through her tiny hands. She lost her grip and landed on her rump. “Please, Papa, get up!” she cried grabbing his arm once more only to fail again. He was just too big to move.
She tried to drag her mother’s much smaller form from the bedroom and out into the garden. She was about to cross the threshold, just when the wall between her bedroom and the cottage’s main room crumbled and separated her from her mother’s motionless body. The ceiling rained fire down around her, burying her father under the debris. “No!” she screamed.
She was alone and more terrified than she had ever been in her short life. Eliza curled up in a ball and covered her head to protect it from the falling debris. Embers singed her arms and feet, and she recoiled back from her father’s body only to be singed again and again as she moved farther and farther away. The air smelled of roasted flesh and the pain was excruciating, but she kept moving and crawled backward until she found herself outside in the yard.
The church bell clanged loudly in the distance; cries of distress rose up throughout the village. Neighbors poured out of their houses in various states of dress. The Boltons’ closest neighbor, John Cole, ran over scooping Eliza up into his arms. Other people attempted to fight the flames, but to no avail…all was lost. It was too late to save her father and mother.
As Mr. Cole held her, he asked how she had managed to escape to the front garden. She looked all around her and realized she had no memory of how she did. She couldn’t account of what had transpired and chose to remain silent to all inquiries and watched her childhood home burn to the ground taking her parents with it.
“She is covered in blood,” Mr. Cole informed his wife as she met him at the door to their house; the village minister, Richard Summers, followed close behind.
“Look at the state of her! The poor thing. Give her to me,” the wife instructed, holding her arms out. “I will see that she is bathed and her wounds tended to. Her parents?”
“They’re gone, Helen. Daniel and Sarah Bolton are no more,” her husband replied, shaking his head in sorrow. A single tear rolled down the wife’s cheek at the news of their demise.
“If it is alright, I would like to stay and say a prayer for the girl and for the souls of her parents,” the minister requested.
Helen wiped the tears running down her face. “Of course, Reverend Summers. You are most welcome in our home.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Cole, Mr. Cole.” The Reverend removed his hat and sat at the Cole’s kitchen table. He bowed his head and started mumbling under his breath in what Eliza could only guess was the promised prayer on her behalf.
She watched the entire proceeding in silence. Her face, feet, and hands had gone numb. Her mouth tasted of charcoal. Her eyes and nose burned and ran. Her ears rang like church bells on a Sunday morning. She remembered the Reverend’s sermons on hellfire and brimstone and was reasonably sure that she had died and gone to Hell. She would have sworn it had been the Devil himself who had come to call on her parents that night.
She wanted to tell the minister that there was no God, for if there were, He would have heard her prayers and helped save her parents. No, there was only the Devil and his minions, shadow figures upon the wall. They had taken everything from her.
Mrs. Cole bathed and dressed Eliza, who simply sat limply as a rag doll and allowed the woman to do as she wished.
Why do I need a bath in Hell? Is the Devil particular about cleanliness? Odd that, considering the amount of soot he must produce. I wonder how many chimney sweeps the Devil requires. Has the Devil decided to take the Reverend and the Cole family too? I bet the Reverend is surprised about that since he always said he was going to live in Heaven with God when he died.
Her six-year-old mind was incapable of processing the events of the evening in any other way than through the religious texts that she had been taught from infancy. The world of safety and security that her parents had created for her did not include lessons on murder and arson. In her sheltered universe, these things had simply not existed. To her mind, no person could ever have committed such atrocities, so it had to be the Devil, for who else but evil incarnate could have done such a thing.
Mrs. Cole tucked her in bed beneath a pile of warm blankets and sang her a lullaby. Her voice was sweet and husky. It reminded Eliza of honeycomb – rough and smooth at the same time; she stared up at the ceiling and waited for the fiery serpents to appear once more, but they never came.
Exhausted, eyes burning, Eliza drifted off to sleep and dreamt of her parent’s blood flowing across the floor to join in one last final crimson embrace.
Seventeen Years Later
Eliza awoke with a start from yet another nightmare. She could not remember a night when she did not dream of her parents’ deaths since that fateful eve. She rose from her bed and crept quietly across the cold wooden floorboards to the chair where she lay out her clothing for the next day. She donned her dress, threw a cloak about her shoulders, and retrieved the basket of food she had hidden under her bed.
She sneaked out the back door and walked along the darkened cobbled streets to the poverty-riddled side of town, not far from where she resided with the Cole family. When she came to the first ramshackle house, she knocked quietly on the door, so she wouldn’t wake the children within. The door was too flimsy to keep out the cold, much less an intruder. The entire structure would have crumbled with one good stiff knock.
The door creaked open, and a pair of tired, wary, slate blue eyes peered at her. The occupant of the cottage relaxed in relief and opened the door wider for Eliza to pass through. “Miss Bolton, thank the good Lord you have come.”
“Of course, Mrs. Wainwright. I would never break my word.” Eliza placed the basket on the kitchen table and unpacked the contents. “How is Mr. Wainwright’s recovery coming along?”
Mrs. Wainwright paused to shake her head. “Slowly. He burns with fever. The surgeon is not entirely certain if my husband will ever fully recover.”
“Who would ever have anticipated that the occupation of wagon making could be so dangerous.” Eliza had been passing by the Wainwright’s shop when the incident had occurred. The man had let out an unholy scream, and she had rushed to find him upon the ground and his leg crushed beneath the weight of a wagon. The surgeon had been unable to save the leg and was forced to amputate.
“Oh, yes. The Wainwrights have been wagon makers for as long as anyone can remember. His father lost three fingers on his right hand. Nothing to losing a leg…” Mrs. Wainwright’s words faded off at the thought of what the future might hold for her family.
“Fear not,” Eliza reassured, patting the woman’s arm in sympathy. “You can depend on me to be of assistance.”
“Bless you, Miss Bolton. Were it not for you, we would be lost.” Mrs. Wainwright swiped away a tear and reached out to squeeze Eliza’s hand in gratitude.
“Think nothing of it, Mrs. Wainwright. I am all too happy to help.” Eliza squeezed the other woman’s hand in response. “Were it not for the generosity of the Cole family, I too would have been left destitute. ‘Tis naught but the passing on of blessings. I must return home, but rest assured I shall return.”
Eliza bid Mrs. Wainwright farewell and quickly walked home. She needed to arise early with the Cole children, as was her usual routine. The Cole family had taken her in the night of her parent’s murder, and she had remained with them since. In exchange for their generosity she, as the eldest of the children, acted as a governess of sorts, assisting Mrs. Cole with every aspect of their care.
Upon reaching the house, Eliza removed her shoes, crept back to bed, and crawled beneath the covers. Morning would arrive long before she was ready. She snuggled down and attempted to go back to sleep, but found it to be elusive. Images of her parents’ deaths were always lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce the moment sleep claimed her.
I will not allow you to defeat me, her mind whispered to the intangible threat. She was old enough now to understand that it had been wicked men and not the lord of all evil who had killed her parents, but in her dreams, she still saw the Devil’s minions.
The sun dawned over the horizon and shone through the bedroom window panes; Eliza groaned beneath its cheery heat. She had not slept since her return, and her head ached from the lack of adequate rest. She rose from the bed, walked over to the washstand, and splashed her face.
“Eliza!” Mrs. Cole’s voice called from the other room.
“Coming, Mother!” Eliza brushed her hair and smoothed the wrinkles from her dress then exited the bedroom.
“Did we not bake six loaves of bread yesterday? I see only five.” Mrs. Cole stood with her hands on her hips frowning. “Have you been walking about while sleeping again?” Before Eliza had a chance to answer, Mrs. Cole waved her hand in dismissal. “Oh, never you mind. Please wake the children and ready them for breakfast.”
Eliza smiled, relieved that she would not have to divulge her nocturnal secret. If Papa and Mama knew of my going about the streets alone at night, they would be mortified and forbid me from continuing. She started out helping the Wainwrights, but once she saw the poverty-stricken conditions of their neighbors, she felt a strong need to help them, just as the Cole family had helped her.
She could not have stopped now even if they had asked it of her. Too many families depend on me. She had given them her word to help provide for their little ones, and she would not go back on that for anyone.
It had been a trick to provide enough food and medical supplies for those who needed it. She arranged with the local grocer that she would sit and read to his ailing mother in exchange for foodstuffs.
Occasionally, she was forced to supplement her nightly excursions from the Cole’s kitchen, but never took enough to be of trouble. Mrs. Cole always assumed the missing food had been consumed by Eliza during one of her midnight perambulatory episodes. From the time she had come to live with the Coles, at the age of six, she had moved about while still asleep, performing various tasks from eating to hiding in the armoire. The doctor had told Mrs. Cole night terrors were brought on by the traumatic murder of her parents.
Eliza left the kitchen to do as bidden. The Coles had five children: two boys and three girls. Eliza loved her siblings, and the time they spent together. She loved their beautiful, wide-eyed innocence untarnished by the evils she herself had endured. She was present for each one of their births and had lost her heart to each arrival. Mr. and Mrs. Cole were loving parents, and though they could never replace her birth parents, they had cared for her as if she were their own.
When Eliza came to live with the Coles, she had not spoken a word for nearly a year after witnessing her parents murder. She had been terrified out of her wits and had awakened every night screaming. Mr. and Mrs. Cole had rushed to her bedside or to wherever she had sleepwalked and offered what comfort they could. Reverend Summers had made weekly visits to offer prayers.
It had taken a long time for her to realize that she was indeed alive and not actually sentenced to an eternity in Hell like the rich man in Reverend Summers sermons. When she had finally figured that out, her first words in nearly a year had been to ask the reverend why the Devil had taken her parents. Reverend Summers had explained that it was evil men, criminals, that had killed her parents and not a biblical supernatural being.
The idea that another human being could do such a thing had hurt Eliza to her very core. She felt betrayed by her own people. Not knowing who had killed her parents made it hard to trust anyone, because to her mind anyone she encountered throughout the day could have been the culprits.
She had no way of knowing where to even begin to figure out who had murdered them. The local authorities had gotten nowhere as any evidence that might have been accrued had been destroyed in the fire. Probably the villains’ intent all along.
With so many questions as to who had brought about their demise or why they had done so, Eliza turned to books as her refuge from the internal onslaught of emotional turmoil. At night when she could not sleep, she had lain beneath the light of a lamp and lost herself in the stories of romance and legend. In a world of fiction, she had ridden in and saved her parents much like an armor-clad knight on a white steed. She read anything and everything she could get her hands on in order to block out the images of what had actually happened.
The Coles knew reading provided her safe a harbor in the pitch black of night, and never chastised her for using more lamp wicks and oil than anyone else in the household.
It had been her father who had developed her love for literature. He had read to her nightly before her mother had put her to bed. Eliza closed her eyes to picture the scene. I can still see it now, all of us sitting around the fire listening to Papa’s voice as he read of far off places and amazing adventures.
Opening her eyes, Eliza looked down at the sleeping faces of the Cole children and thanked God that they had not suffered the fate of her loss. To lose one’s parents in such a way is cruel beyond measure. Cruelty no one should ever have to endure. Cruelty I should never have had to endure. She shook her head to eliminate the sorrowful thought. God protect them now and always.
Eliza bent over to kiss the smooth blonde brow of the littlest child. “‘Tis time to arise, my sweet,” she whispered, brushing the hair back from his eyes. Oliver was the youngest of the five siblings at three years old. She always woke Oliver first, as he so enjoyed waking his siblings by pouncing upon them as they slept. It was a morning ritual that brought about a round of giggles as each sibling tickled him in revenge for his exuberant greeting.
Eliza watched as Oliver rubbed his eyes awake. “Mornin’ ‘Liza,” he greeted, using his pet name for her.
“Good morning, Oliver,” she replied, assisting him to a sitting position.
Oliver crawled out of bed and pattered over to his eldest brother, Henry’s bed. Crawling up on the side, he positioned himself to leap on his brother. As Oliver’s tiny body landed on Henry’s torso, a grunt escaped the blanket-clad figure upon the bed. Mere moments later a cascade of giggles fell upon Eliza’s ears as Henry tickled Oliver’s feet. “Come here, you little imp,” Henry growled in good humor.
The sound of the brothers’ antics awoke their sisters in the next room, and three young faces peeked around the door casing and grinned at the sight before them. “Good-morning,” the eldest girl, Mary, greeted.
“Good mornin’,” Oliver called back, scrambling down from Henry’s bed to race past his sisters and toward the kitchen. Henry arose and dressed before following. The girls returned to their room to dress then went to join the family for breakfast.
“Will you be reading to Mistress Keen today, Eliza?” The middle daughter, Jane, inquired around a mouthful of porridge.
“Yes, I believe so,” Eliza answered, handing her a napkin to wipe her mouth.
“May I come with you?” The youngest girl, Anne, pleaded, folding her hands together as if in prayer.
“I don’t see why not,” Eliza agreed. She couldn’t help but smile over her sister’s exuberance.
“Yay!” Anne cheered in excitement.
“You must be on your very best behavior,” Eliza warned her firmly.
“I shall,” Anne promised.
“I will hold you to that.” Eliza rose from the table to prepare for her walk to the grocers.
Eliza went to her room, gathered her cloak and reading materials and returned to the kitchen. She found all three girls stood ready and waited to accompany her.
Mary looked up. “May we all go with you, Eliza?”
Eliza smiled and ruffled her young sister’s blonde curls. “Of course, you may.”
“Me too!” Oliver yelled clambering down from his seat to grab at Eliza’s skirts.
“No, not today, my sweet,” Mrs. Cole scooped him up in her arms. “You and Henry are going to stay and help your dear old mother in the garden.”
“Yes, Mother,” Oliver begrudged. His frown made it evident that he was not pleased with the arrangement.
“Come straight home once you have finished,” Mrs. Cole instructed.
“We will,” Eliza promised, kissed her on the cheek, then left the house for the grocer’s, her sisters in tow.
Eliza wondered how she would explain the foodstuffs she received from the grocer that never made it onto the Cole’s kitchen table. She had intended on distributing it on her way home to avoid a midnight excursion, but it could not be helped. She would have to hide the goods until she could disperse them among the neediest of families later.
The girls reached the grocer’s and made their way up the back stairs of the shop to the drawing room above. Mrs. Keen sat awaiting Eliza’s arrival and was surprised to see three little girls march up the stairs to curtsy then take seats on the bench beneath the room’s largest window overlooking the street below. Eliza smiled at her sisters’ manners then took her usual seat opposite the older woman.
Mrs. Keen rang a bell from her side table. A maid appeared in the doorway. “It would appear that I have more guests than expected today. Please bring us a number of sweet treats with our tea.”
“Yes, Mistress.” The maid curtsied and scurried away.
“That is most kind of you, Mrs. Keen. I apologize if bringing my sisters has caused any inconvenience,” Eliza replied, concerned that she had broken with proper decorum allowing them to accompany her.
“Think nothing of it, my dear. You and your family are always welcome,” Mrs. Keen reassured her. “What have you brought for us to read today?”
“I have brought two selections for you to choose from. Would you prefer Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake or Miss Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?” Eliza asked Mrs. Keen knowing her sisters would prefer Miss Austen’s work as they found it to be more relatable to their own lives. Eliza loved the fantasy and adventure of Sir Walter Scott’s literary prowess.
Mrs. Keen turned to the Cole sisters. “What do you think, ladies?”
“Austen!” The three of them exclaimed as one.
“Miss Austen it is then,” Mrs. Keen agreed.
The ladies spent the next several hours immersed in the romantic tale. Eliza watched her sisters’ eyes glaze over in pleasure as they daydreamed of the future lives they wished for themselves. “Oh, can you imagine marrying a gentleman of such caliber?” Mary gushed. “To be swept off of one’s feet by a nobleman of such wealth, perhaps even a duke…” Her words faded away into a sigh of longing.
Eliza chuckled. How could she tell her sisters that such a life was well beyond any of their grasp? Their husbands were destined to be tradesmen or mayhap soldiers. A nobleman was far beyond the realm of probability, and a duke was utterly impossible. But did it do any harm for them to dream? Reality would alter their fanciful perceptions all too soon.
Eliza was fairly certain that she herself would never marry. She could not imagine a husband supporting her nocturnal missions of mercy or find his wife cowered in their armoire after sleepwalking. A husband was a hindrance; she simply could not countenance.
She knew that an unmarried woman of little fortune would need to find sustainable employment if she wished to remain so. Employment options for young ladies were limited at best. Eliza considered becoming a lady’s companion or a children’s governess, but she had no desire to serve as a maid or cook. Above all else, she wished to put her intellect and love of books to good use.
When Mrs. Keen grew tired, Eliza knew it was time to take her sisters and return home. On her way out, the grocer, Mr. Keen, called her name. “Eliza!”
“Mary, please take Jane and Anne outside, and I will meet you in front of the store.” Eliza did not wish the girls to witness her exchange with Mr. Keen.
Mary complied and Eliza turned to speak with the grocer. “Yes, Mr. Keen?”
“I have your food ready. Do you wish to have anything added to your usual order?” He placed the items into a cloth sack.
“No, thank you, Mr. Keen.” Eliza took the sack and concealed it inside of her cloak. She then met her sisters at the front of the store and escorted them home.
“How was Mrs. Keen today?” Mrs. Cole inquired upon their entering the kitchen. “Were you girls on your best behavior?”
The girls chimed, “Yes, Mother,”
“Mrs. Keen is doing well. She grew tired from our visit, and so we departed to allow her to rest.” Eliza walked to her bedroom, placed the sack in her armoire, removed her cloak, and returned to the kitchen to assist in preparations for the evening meal.
“My friend, Mrs. Philips, will be dropping by for tea tomorrow afternoon. Will you be present to assist with the children or will you be with Mrs. Keen?” Mrs. Cole asked, dusting flour from her hands.
“Yes, I will be here,” Eliza promised.
That night Eliza lay awake until the rest of the household fell silent in slumber then arose to retrieve the hidden parcel of food from the armoire. She threw her cloak over her shoulders and exited the house, quietly going from cottage to cottage distributing her week’s earnings among those most in need.
Her last stop was the Wainwrights. She entered to assist the wife with cleaning and dressing her husband’s wound.
“The fever is getting worse,” Mrs. Wainwright fretted, wringing her hands as Eliza unwrapped the old bandage.
Eliza wrinkled her nose at the odor. “The wound smells putrid. Has the doctor been by again?”
“We can’t afford to pay him for any more visits. The amputation and his following visit drained our ever-dwindling coffers.” Mrs. Wainwright bowed her head in shame. “We were living hand to mouth as it was after paying for my husband’s father’s funeral expenses. The legacy duties finished us off after that.” It was considered poor decorum to discuss money, but it was quite apparent that the woman was at her end.
“Mrs. Wainwright, I fear that if you do not call the surgeon back to tend your husband’s wounds, he may die,” Eliza warned as the last bit of bandage fell away.
“Holy mother of God.” Mrs. Wainwright gasped at the sight.
All that remained of Mr. Wainwright’s leg was a gangrenous, angry, red stump that oozed green and yellow pus. The horrendous smell of putrefaction was overwhelming. It filled the room, causing its occupants to gag in reflex. His skin burned to the touch. He passed in and out of consciousness as Eliza cleaned the wound. She did not have any medicine on hand but had brought a jar of honey. She knew from past experience that honey had healing properties in caring for such issues.
I hope I am making the right choice. Eliza coated the stump with the honey and wrapped a new bandage around it. A surgeon would be better.
“I will return upon the morrow to see how you are both doing. Perhaps there is something in one of my books that can help us to know what to do.” Eliza washed her hands in the kitchen basin, then redonned her cloak, pulled the hood up over her head, and slipped out into the night.
Distracted by the gruesome images of Mr. Wainwright’s leg still clear in her mind, Eliza did not notice the dark figures that emerged from the shadows of an adjoining alleyway. The first she took note of their presence was when one of them grabbed her arm and demanded that she turn over any jewels or money in her possession.
“Unhand me this instant.” She attempted to remove her arm from the assailant’s grasp.
She saw a knife flashed in the moonlight as another of the figures moved forward. “Turn over your valuables or die where you stand. We can take your possessions just as easily from your corpse.”
The men’s voices were rough and their faces covered. She didn’t notice any distinguishing marks to tell them apart from any other man. They moved just like the shadows of the men who had murdered her parents long ago.
She froze as memory overwhelmed her. Could they be the same men? Her anger at the idea quickly overcame her fear.
She was not strong enough to fight them off. She looked around for any passersby who might offer her aid but saw none. A cry for help would expose her secret, but without it, she might not live to see the morrow. She took a deep breath and screamed, “Help! Help!”
The man who gripped her arm placed his hand over her mouth, “Be still!”
Eliza bit down on one of his fingers and stamped her heel on his toes. The man let out a yell and swung his fist at her, barely missing her face. Eliza stumbled to avoid his assault and was grabbed by the other fellow who placed the knife to her ribs and demanded she remain still. Eliza chose to obey.
She trembled both in fear and anger; her breaths came in short bursts. Her mind searched for a way out of her precarious situation through the fog of terror. I cannot die here alone in this alley. I have barely begun to live. I will not allow myself to be murdered as my parents were murdered. I will not! Eliza considered all of the options available to her and found she had none. God help me, she prayed.
“Unhand the lady,” a deep masculine voice commanded from the darkness that startled both Eliza and her attackers. The sound of a gun being cocked echoed off the cobblestones, and a masked figure stepped out of the shadows and placed the muzzle of a pistol to the knife wielder’s head.
Eliza heaved a sigh of relief. She looked to her savior, but the only thing she could see were the piercing blue of his eyes reflected in the light of the streetlamps. They snapped in violent anger as he demanded immediate obedience. “Now.”
Arthur Huntley, Duke of Rosenhill, rolled his blue eyes, frustrated at his mother’s unceasing complaints. Margaret was currently bemoaning her misfortune at having birthed his twin siblings, Charlotte and Gabriel. They had been through five governesses in the last ten years, all of whom had quit or been fired, one right after the other. The twins were prone to antics, but the cruelty of their parents had been the real cause of the rapid succession governesses.
The household staff filled in the best they could, but with their other duties, it had been trying at best. With the late Duke dead, Margaret completely rejected the twins at every turn. Arthur knew she would have gladly rejected him were she not under his care as lord and master of Rosenhill and their family.
Their father had been a brutal man, and upon his death, the Dowager Duchess had done her best to eradicate his memory from her life. Arthur watched as she portrayed the grieving widow in public, but cursed his father’s name behind closed doors. Arthur honestly could not blame her for hating his father, but he could not condone her behavior towards his siblings.
Without a consistent source of care, discipline, and love, the twins were growing increasingly out of hand. Arthur knew it was time to intervene and arrange for another governess. When his mother paused during her tirade to take a breath, Arthur used the opportunity to interject a solution. “I will put out an advertisement for another governess today. Perhaps instead of going through an agency this time, we should try a local woman.”
“Yes, perhaps we will find a creature so poverty-stricken that she will have no choice but to remain for the duration of the abominable urchins’ minority,” his mother agreed with enough venom to make a viper envious.
Arthur felt a deep empathy for the twins. He strove to let them know that they were loved every day, but a brother’s love could not replace that of a parent, and neither of their parents had ever shown an exuberance of affection. The exact opposite had been displayed overabundantly throughout his own childhood, and the only affection given him was from the household staff.
Arthur left his mother to churn in her bitterness and descended below stairs to find his head housekeeper. Mrs. Philips had lived in the neighboring village long enough to know who among the local women would make a competent governess for the twins. She had served as a second mother to him from birth, and he trusted her opinion explicitly.
He knocked on the door of her office and was bade entry. As he crossed over the threshold, the housekeeper arose from her chair to curtsy. “Your Grace, how may I be of service?”
“Mrs. Philips, please sit. I wish you would return to calling me Arthur.”
“Ah, but you are young Master Arthur no more, Your Grace,” she reminded affectionately.
“I suppose not,” he replied regretfully. “I have a request to make of you. As you are all too aware, the twins need a new governess. I have decided to forgo the agency and procure someone locally. Do you know of an appropriate candidate?”
“I might. I am due to visit a friend of mine upon the morrow. She has a daughter who is of an age and temperament for the position. I will present the idea to her and see whether she is amenable to the task,” Mrs. Philips offered.
“That would be splendid. Thank you, Mrs. Philips.”
“Of course, Your Grace.” She curtsied, bending her greying head in deference.
Arthur momentarily wished he were a boy once more so that he might crawl up into her lap and be soothed, comforted by the knowledge that at least in her, he had a safe place to hide from the woes of the world. Unfortunately, those days were over, and as the Duke of Rosenhill, such responsibilities now befall him. It was his job to provide succor and comfort to those under his care in ways his father never had.
“Will you be going out again tonight?” Mrs. Philips asked as he turned to exit the room.
“Yes.” Arthur paused to answer. “Father’s misconduct was more far-reaching in its effects than I had anticipated. There are many in the village that live in poverty due to his unsavory business dealings, and were I to go out every night for a year, I would not have begun to make reparations.”
“You are a good man, Your Grace. There are many that will eat tonight because of you,” she praised.
“What is it the Bible says about the sins of the father?” he asked bitterly.
“That they shall be visited upon the sons,” Mrs. Philips walked over to place a hand upon his arm.
“I will never outlive the shame he has brought to our family name,” Arthur lamented.
“It is not your responsibility to pay for your father’s sins, but the fact that you are willing to make his wrongs right is a testament to your true character. There are children who will go to sleep with a full belly this night who would otherwise be whimpering with hunger in their beds. You did not cause their misfortune, but you have chosen to be their redemption. Let go of the past, step out of your father’s shadow, and embrace the light that is within your heart.” Mrs. Philips squeezed his arm in encouragement then released it.
He smiled down into the gentle hazel eyes of this woman and thanked God for her presence in his life.
Were it not for her, I would have given up and run away a long time ago.
He would never forget the first time his father had beaten him, or the gentle way in which Mrs. Philips had picked him up off the floor and tended his wounds. He had only been three years old. Twenty-three years later, his father moldered in the ground and Arthur ruled supreme. He had learned to be a man by doing the exact opposite of everything his father had ever done.
He knew that the proper thing for a son would have been to mourn his father’s passing, but in truth, he did not lament the loss. If anything, he felt a sense of relief that he and his siblings would no longer be forced to cower in fear through another one of his drunken rampages. When Arthur had been old enough to do something about it, he had stepped between his father and the twins to spare them the physical violence that he himself had so long endured.
It is nothing short of a miracle that I survived childhood to become a man. I honestly believe Father felt threatened by his own progeny. As his heir, I reminded him of his own mortality, and for that, he made me pay in blood. His method of death was a fitting tribute to his life.
Hugh Huntley, the former Duke of Rosenhill, had died while out riding. The official magistrate’s report had declared it as murder via highwaymen, but Arthur was fairly certain that his father’s demise had been brought about as a result of his rapacious lifestyle. His father had exploited his tenants and employees, blackmailed his peers, and extorted local businesses unto poverty. Arthur was sure his father had done even worse things than that but lacked the proof or full knowledge to do anything about it.
The late Duke had developed an extensive network of criminals to do his bidding that now fell under the auspices of his father’s business associate Ludlow Finch, the Marquess of Denlington. Their criminal empire had grown unchecked as there was never any solid evidence that could link them to the crimes. People were loath to believe that a wealthy nobleman, such as a duke or marquess, would soil themselves with criminality.
Arthur had hoped that with the passing of his father, the Marquess would have stopped his regular visits to Rosenhill, but instead, Denlington had continued to visit the Dowager Duchess multiple times a week. He supposed it was good for his mother to have a friend to share her many complaints with. After all, no one had known the former Duke better than Denlington.
Mrs. Philips interrupted his thoughts. “I will have the cook prepare everything you need for tonight.”
“Thank you. What would I ever do without you?” Arthur smiled fondly at the housekeeper.
“Let us hope you are never forced to endure such an atrocity,” she teased, affectionately patting his arm.
“Quite so. I will be down after everyone has gone to bed.”
“The food will be waiting in its usual place.”
Arthur departed, returning to his duties above stairs. He had not realized how much of the estate’s wealth had come from his father’s less than savory activities until he had inherited the title. His first order of business had been to go over the books, and he found a great many discrepancies. This caused him to further investigate his father’s business dealings, and it revealed that the late Duke had been the ruin of many a local businessman.
Tonight, he had plans to visit a local wagon maker whom his father had overtaxed. He intended to bring the man’s family food and to give back the money his father had taken. He could have gone to the man’s shop in the daylight, but Arthur did not wish to make the late Duke’s misdeeds common knowledge. He was after justice, not social ruin.
Arthur had no desire to carry on his father’s activities and needed to find another source of income. Yes, he could live strictly on his inheritance, but he felt morally bound to return a vast amount of it to the families that needed it more. Instead, he had turned Rosenhill into a working estate wherein he endeavored to produce a wide range of agricultural goods.
He had procured a steady market in London for his wares and had hired some of his most loyal tenants to assist in working the land. His mother was furious with the idea. In her opinion, a duke did not work to earn his way in the world. A duke participating in manual labor was utterly abhorrent to her and went against every rule of his social standing.
“Just like your father, never content with what you have.” His mother had scorned his every notion to improve upon the estate’s holdings. She was a strict traditionalist when it came to one’s station in life. To her mind, inherited fortunes were a noble family’s right regardless of how it had been accrued. Mrs. Philips had raised him to believe otherwise. She had instilled in him a strong sense of responsibility, not for his father’ actions, but for his own legacy.
Mrs. Philips had taught him to embrace his ability to make a difference in the world through his labors, in spite of his title. It was a lesson he had hoped to pass on to his siblings, but his mother had blocked his attempts at every turn. Though he and the Duchess had lived in the same household his entire life, they were very much estranged over their philosophies of what life should be.
Were she to find out about his midnight excursions of mercy and atonement, she would make his life even more miserable than she already did. A fate he wished to avoid.
When night fell, and all was quiet, Arthur donned his disguise, stuffed a pistol in his belt, and slipped down the back stairs into the kitchen to find his promised food bundle awaiting him on the table. He hid his blonde hair beneath a hat and covered his face with a black woolen scarf. Throwing the bag of goods over his shoulder, he left the house. He mounted the waiting horse Mrs. Philips had instructed one of the grooms to saddle and headed into town.
As he moved through the cobbled streets, he made sure to stay within the shadows. He had no desire to fall prey to any of Denlington’s men who paroled the streets at night looking for opportunities to inflict trouble. As he rounded the corner onto the wagon maker’s street, he saw beneath the faded glow of the street lanterns three figures grappling in the darkness.
“Help! Help!” A feminine voice cried out from one of the figures, then was swiftly silenced by another.
Arthur could not make out anything they were saying from where he stood, but it was clear to him that a lady was in distress. Arthur dismounted and crept his way through the shadows until he stood so close to the perpetrators that he could have reached out and touched them.
He cocked his pistol and placed it to the head of the man who held a knife. “Unhand the lady. Now!”
“Alright, alright, we were just having a bit o’ fun,” the other man held his hands up to show that he was unarmed.
“’Twere nothing but a lark,” The man at the point of the muzzle agreed, dropped the knife and released the woman.
“I am sure the lady would beg to differ with your assessment of the situation.” Arthur motioned for the woman to get behind him. She swiftly and silently obeyed. “Now I have half a mind to turn you both over to the magistrate, so I suggest you run along before I act on it.”
The two men fled back down the alleyway disappeared from sight. “Thank you,” the lady spoke from behind him. “You are most kind to have come to my aid.”
“I suggest you not linger long unchaperoned upon the streets at night, Madam. It sends the wrong message, attracting less than respectable attentions,” Arthur warned. “May I escort you home?”
“No, thank you. I will be fine from here.”
The next thing he knew, she scurried away as quickly as her petite form would carry her. He had not gotten a clear look at the poor creature and hoped that she was unharmed.
Arthur retrieved his horse and advanced to the wagon maker’s abode. The terrified look in the woman’s eyes stuck with him the rest of the night. He found himself wishing he had gotten her name so that he might reassure himself as to her wellbeing. He was reasonably certain that the assailants had once been employed by his father and he felt a small amount of responsibility for their actions.
He knocked on the wagon maker’s door, and a mousey haired, grey-eyed woman answered the door. “Miss B…” she began then stopped.
“My apologies if you were expecting someone else. I know the hour is late, but I am looking for Mr. Wainwright. Is he at home?” Arthur observed her wary expression. “It has been brought to my attention that he overpaid his legacy duties. I have come to remedy the oversight.”
“Mr. Wainwright is feeling poorly and not up for company, but I am his wife,” the woman answered, not offering to allow his entry.
He wondered who she had been expecting in the middle of the night. It is none of my business. Just do what you came to do and move on. Do not get involved.
Arthur handed the woman the sack of food. “The money is inside the bag with a few other items I included as an apology for the misunderstanding.”
The woman peered inside the sack and her eyes widened at the sight. “Thank you, sir!”
Arthur tipped his hat in respect. “Think nothing of it. I bid you a good night, Mrs. Wainwright.”
“And you, sir.” The daunted look of pleasure and relief upon her face was one he would not soon forget.
Having made his delivery, Arthur melted back into the night, mounted his horse, and headed for home.
Eliza was in a daze the rest of the way home. She slipped through the back door unnoticed and crawled into bed. It had been an eventful night. First with Mr. Wainwright’s leg, then she was accosted on the streets by two ruffians and ended with her daring rescue by a masked stranger. It was like something out of one of her books.
Who is he?
She could still see his brilliant blue eyes in her mind, clear as an unclouded sky in summer. She had never been accosted in such a manner before, and she knew that she had been wrong to let her guard down. It had been a risk to traipse around town alone in the middle of the night. I should have been more careful. I am fortunate that a gentleman was in close enough proximity to save me.
She shuddered to think what might have happened had he not scared her attackers away.
Eliza promised herself she, from that point forward, she would do her charity work only in the daylight. If she couldn’t get away during any given day, then she would just have to wait until the next one. No more putting herself at risk by such foolish behavior. If the Coles questioned her absence, she would simply have to tell them the truth, whether they approved or not. It would not be pleasant to admit having taken food from their kitchen without permission, but she had faced worse.
Eliza lay awake for most of the night and fell asleep just before daybreak. When Mrs. Cole called for her to arise, she did not hear a word of it.
“Eliza…Eliza!” Mrs. Cole’s voice melded with her dreams turning into the voice of her birth mother on that fatal night.
“Mother?” Eliza spoke without waking. “Do not let them kill you, Mother!”
“Eliza! Wake up,” Mrs. Cole demanded, shaking her to break through the fog. “You promised you would assist me today. We must ready the house for my afternoon guest.”
From the doorway, Henry observed, “It looks like she had a difficult night, Mother. Perhaps you should let her rest. It is only your friend, Mrs. Philips, that is coming. The house is sufficient as it is.”
“Mrs. Philips is the head housekeeper at Rosenhill. She keeps an immaculate house, and I will not force her to suffer through anything less when she is here. We may not be able to offer her the elegant splendor she is accustomed to, but we will offer cleanliness,” Mrs. Cole argued.
The exchange between mother and son caused Eliza to emerge from her dreams, tears streaming down her cheeks. The sound of her birth mother calling her name had felt so real. Her head ached, and her body felt as if it had been trampled.
As her mind cleared, she remembered the cause of her discomfort. I must have been jostled about more than I thought during last night’s events.
“Eliza,” Mrs. Cole tried once more.
“I am awake,” Eliza replied. She opened her eyes and a sharp pain stabbed through her head at facing the light.
“Good. Please, arise and join me in the kitchen. We have much to do today,” Mrs. Cole requested, then bustled out of the room issuing orders to all of her children.
Eliza dragged herself through the morning barely able to summon enough energy to function. She was utterly exhausted and out of sorts. As much as they loved her, the Coles would never fully understand what she endured each night, and last night had been particularly unpleasant. At three and twenty she knew it was time to move along and start a new life for herself, but she was unsure exactly how to go about it.
She had considered applying to an employment agency for lady’s companions and governesses but had not dared to journey to London for the interview process. She had also been loath to leave her siblings and people like the Wainwrights who depended on her.
“Eliza, please go out to the garden and bring in whatever ripened vegetables you find. I wish to provide Mrs. Philips with a decent table for luncheon,” Mrs. Cole asked.
“Of course,” Eliza replied and went to do as she was told.
As she knelt among the rich dirt, she closed her eyes and breathed in the earthy smell. “Miss Bolton,” a voice interrupted her quiet moment.
Opening her eyes, Eliza turned to see who had spoken her name. “Mrs. Wainwright! What are you doing here? Has something happened to your husband?”
“Yes and no… A man came to our cottage shortly after you departed claiming that we had paid too much in taxes and that he had come to return the excess in funds. He left us a large sack of food and enough money to see us back on our feet for a time, including paying the surgeon to attend my husband.” Mrs. Wainwright practically glowed with happiness. “It is a miracle.”
“Indeed! I am so happy for you both,” Eliza exclaimed with joy. She arose from her kneeling position and walked over to the fence where her visitor stood taking her hands in celebration of the wonderful news. “Who was this generous man?”
“I do not know. He never gave his name, and his face was covered by a woolen scarf and hat. I did note that he had the bluest eyes I have ever seen,” Mrs. Wainwright answered. “A young man I believe.”
My rescuer! Eliza’s heart jumped in recognition of the man’s description. Eliza shared with her the events of the night before.
“A masked hero,” Mrs. Wainwright proclaimed in awe. “It is blessed indeed that you were not harmed. With the return of our funds, there will no longer be a need for you to traverse the roads at night. You are always welcome in our house, and we will never forget what you have done for use. For your safety, I think it would be best for you to only visit during the day in the future.”
“I agree,” Eliza confirmed. “I am beyond thrilled that you will no longer need my services, but I will miss our time together. Perhaps I can come and visit each week just to talk?”
“That would be splendid,” Mrs. Wainwright encouraged. “Thank you ever so much for all you have done.” She embraced Eliza in a tight hug of exultation and appreciation, then said her farewells. “I must return to my husband’s bedside once I have fetched the surgeon. I will see you soon.”
“Of course,” Eliza agreed and waved goodbye.
Eliza knelt back down among the garden vegetables. My reasons for remaining here are growing fewer in number.
Just last week Mr. Cole had been discussing possible marriage candidates for her. Something she very much did not wish for. Usually, she was content in her lot, but mornings like this one where she longed for the freedom to determine her own schedule, to organize her own life, made her stop and think about what the future might hold for her elsewhere.
She had often thought of writing as a possible career, and with women writers such as Miss Austen making a name for themselves, such a thing seemed more possible than ever before. If she were able to determine her own schedule, then perhaps she could pursue such an occupation in her off hours.
Where would I even begin? I cannot go off to London on my own, unchaperoned, and Father would never agree to take me. He has very different ideas for my future. If he had his way, he would have me married to the butcher’s son and living next door with half a dozen children.
“Eliza, please hurry. We do not have all day to wait for you, my dear,” Mrs. Cole called from the doorway.
Eliza and the Cole children assisted their mother in scrubbing every surface of the house and putting together a delicious luncheon for her friend. When Mrs. Philips arrived, Mrs. Cole gushed with pleasure to see her. “It has been too long,” Mrs. Cole stated, leading her friend to the sitting room.
“Indeed,” Mrs. Philips agreed. Turning to Eliza, she said, “My, how you have blossomed into a young woman seemingly overnight! You are quite lovely, my dear.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Philips,” Eliza accepted the compliment with a curtsy, then went to pour their guest a cup of tea.
“I have a rather interesting proposition for you, Eliza, if you are interested. The Duke and Dowager Duchess of Rosenhill are seeking to hire a new governess for the twins: Lord Gabriel and Lady Charlotte. Is that something you would be interested in? I told them I would inquire and, if so, I will recommend you to the position,” Mrs. Philips asked, taking the offered teacup from Eliza’s hand and lowered herself upon the settee.
“Truly?” Eliza could hardly believe her ears. Had she not just this morning been wondering about how to procure such employment?
“Yes, truly,” Mrs. Philips nodded in affirmation.
“I don’t know what to say.” Eliza felt giddy with the possibility.
“Say, yes,” Mrs. Philips urged. “It will not be easy, but the twins could benefit greatly from a loving, steady hand such as yours.”
“We should discuss it with Mr. Cole upon his arrival home this evening,” Mrs. Cole advised.
“Of course,” Mrs. Philips replied. “Take the evening to think upon it, but do not tarry overlong for they wish to hire someone right away.”
“Yes. Thank you, Mrs. Philips,” Eliza replied, then remained quiet for the remainder of the visit thinking about the possibilities of life at Rosenhill.
Later that night after supper, the Cole family gathered around the sitting room fireplace to discuss Mrs. Philip’s job offer. “Are you sure this is what you want, Eliza? I have heard stories about the Dowager Duchess and the former Duke. They were not pleasant,” Mr. Cole warned.
“Yes, I am sure. I have been looking for just such an opportunity.”
“What about marriage, settling down, raising a family?” he asked.
“Father, you know as well as I that no man is going to tolerate someone such as I with my night terrors and other nocturnal activities.”
“True, it is rare to find a person who can walk about talking, eating, and…” he paused not wishing to finish the sentence.
“And fight back in their sleep,” Eliza finished for him.
“Yes, but I would not have let such a thing keep me from marrying Mrs. Cole and I am sure the butcher’s son would not mind over-much,” he argued.
“Father, I love you and would do anything to please you, but what you are proposing is not the life I would choose for myself. I simply wish to remain unmarried and live a quiet, productive life of educational and literary pursuits.” Eliza pleaded with her eyes for him to understand.
“You would leave us, ‘Liza?” Little Oliver’s lip quivered at the notion.
“Never,” Eliza promised. “I would simply be down the road and would visit constantly.”
“Truly?” His tiny features begged her to confirm her words.
“Truly,” Eliza affirmed taking him into her lap offering him comfort.
“If it is what you honestly wish to do, then I will not stand in your way,” Mr. Cole acquiesced. “But we will miss you more than you know.”
The image of his face on the night he had retrieved her, burned and terrified in the front garden of her childhood home, flashed before her eyes. He had been strong for her that night and had looked out for her wellbeing from that day forward. She had never once doubted that she was loved by either he or his wife. They had had tears in their eyes that night, and they had tears in their eyes now. It broke Eliza’s heart to look at them.
“If it does not succeed for any reason, you return home without delay. I will not have you mistreated, whether your employers are nobility or not,” Mr. Cole commanded. “I will not stand for any form of abuse to my little girl.”
Eliza smiled at his words. He had never once treated her as anything but his own flesh and blood, his first-born. No matter what she had done, no matter how many times she had awakened him screaming in the night, no matter how much she had grown in his eyes, she would always be his little girl.
“What kind of stories have you heard, Father?” Eliza asked.
“As you know, I am not one to repeat gossip, but it is rumored that the former Duke was murdered for his part in criminal activities and that the Dowager Duchess might have had something to do with it,” he answered.
“Surely not! A lady of her standing,” Mrs. Cole protested.
“As I say it is only rumor, but it pays to be cautious when dealing with the nobility,” he advised.
For some reason she could not quite identify, a shivery chill of foreboding ran up her spine. Could the Dowager Duchess truly be capable of murdering her own husband?
Eliza stood in the drive staring up at Rosenhill Manor, her mouth agape.
She had heard tales of Rosenhill’s glory but had never seen it herself. The yellow stone walls and golden accents glinted in the sun like a beacon of light. Whether it was beckoning wayfarers to come closer or to avoid it altogether, Eliza wasn’t yet sure.
Roses of every size and color cascaded along the drive and down the slope that led away from the house to a water garden below its front face. The air was filled with their sweet perfume. The name Rosenhill suddenly made a great deal of sense. The house itself resembled that of a yellow rose opening up and sprawling out in all its glory.
The Huntley crest and coat of arms were carved into the wooden doors. The bronze handles were in the shape of hunting horns, and the knocker was the depiction of an enormous stag. Everything about the place bespoke power and wealth. Eliza felt like an insect in comparison. She had worn her best lavender frock and done her hair up in the latest style with ringlets framing her face.
She had come for an interview with Mrs. Philips and the head butler, Mr. Danvers. If the head butler approved of her, then she would be presented to the Duke and Dowager Duchess for final approval. Eliza was nervous. She had never met nobility before and was not quite sure she knew how to act. She feared she would do something amiss and be denied.
Being a governess was a serious job in which the lives and care of another person’s children would be in her hands. She had fearlessly cared for her siblings over the years, but this was not quite the same thing. She prayed that she would not embarrass herself or her family.
Eliza walked around to the servant’s entrance and knocked on the door. Mrs. Philips answered greeting her warmly. She ushered Eliza inside and down the hall to the butler’s office. Knocking on the door, they were bade entry. “Mr. Danvers, this is the young woman I was telling you about, Miss Eliza Bolton. Eliza, this is Mr. Danvers, the head butler of Rosenhill Manor.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Bolton,” Mr. Danvers greeted. “I have heard a great many things about your character, all of them complimentary.”
“Thank you, sir,” Eliza replied blushing.
“This interview is merely a formality. If Mrs. Philips believes you are the young lady for the position of governess, then I trust that you are capable,” Mr. Danvers informed her. “Please sit and tell me about yourself, your family. What does your father do?”
“My birth father, Daniel Bolton, was a teacher of superlative intellect. My adopted father, John Cole, is a talented carpenter,” Eliza answered honestly. It pained her to talk about her birth father to a complete stranger, but she did not want an omission of her pedigree to be the cause by which she was denied the position.
“My sympathies for your loss, Miss Bolton,” Mr. Danvers replied. “Your mother’s people?”
“My birth mother, Sarah, was a Jones. Her father was a naval captain in His Majesty’s service. He died in the war for the Americas. My grandmother joined him shortly thereafter from a broken heart,” Eliza explained from what she could remember of her mother’s stories.
“And your father’s parents?” he inquired.
“Deceased. I am afraid I do not remember much about them. I was but six when my parents died,” Eliza apologized for her lack of knowledge.
“You are no stranger to adversity,” Mr. Danvers observed studying her face. “Mrs. Philips has told me of your work with the Cole children and with Mrs. Keen in the village. I believe we can safely say you have experience in child rearing.”
“Yes, sir,” Eliza affirmed.
“Shall we go above stairs and introduce you to His Grace and the Dowager Duchess?” he asked.
“Yes, please,” Eliza replied; her stomach fluttered with nervousness.
“Follow me,” he instructed, and Eliza obeyed.
Mr. Danvers and Mrs. Philips led her up a staircase, down a hallway, through a side door, down another hallway, and into a spacious drawing room of powder blue and silver. It was exquisite. A large row of windows took up the entirety of one wall looking out over the rose garden. Silver gilt mirrors reflected the light causing it to bounce around the room, shining from every silver surface.
“Your Grace…May I present Miss Eliza Bolton, the applicant for the governess position. Miss Bolton, His Grace, Arthur Huntley, Duke of Rosenhill and his lady mother, Her Grace, the Dowager Duchess, Margaret Huntley.” Mr. Danvers made the introductions with the most gallant of flourishes. Eliza could not help but smile. Mr. Danvers was genuinely meant for his occupation in every way imaginable.
“Miss Bolton, a pleasure,” the Duke greeted from his position by the window. He came around the settee where his mother was perched upon the edge of her seat, back ramrod straight, silver-blonde hair perfectly in place, green eyes assessing her every move. The Duke was much more amiable and came to stand directly in front of her. His blonde hair lay in short waves as was the current fashion. His eyes sparkled with genuine pleasure at meeting her.
That voice… those eyes!
She had seen his eyes before, so blue.
It could not possibly be him. The resemblance to her midnight savior was uncanny. Surely not. A duke would have no reason to be going about the streets at night masked fighting off attackers.
Coming to her senses before she made a complete and utter fool of herself, she curtsied in greeting. “Your Grace,” she murmured, averting her eyes to the floor. “The pleasure is mine.”
“To be sure,” the Dowager Duchess remarked snidely.
“Miss Bolton comes with the highest of recommendations from Mrs. Philips and has experience in caring for children. I have talked with her and am in agreement with Mrs. Philips on the matter,” Mr. Danvers explained.
“Excellent,” the Duke replied. “When can you start?”
“Right away, Your Grace,” Eliza answered, shocked that it had been so easy. She had expected to be ground into meal via interrogation but instead had been welcomed with open arms. They must be desperate indeed for a governess…that, or Mrs. Philips is truly respected above all others. Mayhap both.
“Wonderful! Mrs. Philips can show you to the nursery so that you can meet the children. After that, she can show you to your room and help you to settle in. Have you brought your belongings with you or shall I send a man to collect them?” the Duke offered.
“That is most kind of Your Grace, but I would prefer to collect them myself and share the good news with my family,” Eliza replied shyly.
“Of course. Please make sure to let Mrs. Philips know if you need any assistance, and I will have a groomsman accompany you,” the Duke replied.
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Eliza curtsied.
“Thank you, Miss Bolton.” The Duke courteously bowed in reply.
As they exited the drawing room and entered the main hall, Eliza stopped to view a large portrait that hung on the wall. “The late Duke, His Grace’s father,” Mrs. Philips informed her.
The man was tall and broad-chested like his son, with the same brilliant blue eyes, but where the young Duke’s were warm, his father’s were ice cold. There was a cruelty that glinted behind them. Eliza wondered if it was a trick of the artist or if he had actually caught the real character of the man.
Unlike his son’s golden blonde locks, the late Duke had sported a thick mane of coal black hair accompanied by a matching mustache. A rather large scar cut down his left cheek making him appear more rogue than Duke. He sat tall upon his black hunting steed surrounded by baying hounds with a dead stag across the front of his horse. The artist had done a superlative job. The painting was so lively it felt as if it could have come down off of the canvas.
“A cruel man,” Mrs. Philips murmured under her breath then moved on continuing towards the nursery.
Perhaps the rumors are true.
Eliza knew Mrs. Philips would not have said a negative word against the man were it not true. Shaking her head, she disregarded her misgivings. ‘Tis none of my business what sort of a man he was or how his family dealt with him. I am here to do a job, not concern myself in the affairs of others. She hurried along to catch up with the housekeeper.
The nursery was a pale lemon yellow with green accents. Two children played with tiny toy soldiers on a rug upon the floor. The boy, Gabriel, was blonde with blue eyes like his brother. He had the most adorable dimples that winked in and out of existence as he talked to his sister about their battle strategy. The girl, Charlotte, was tall, taller than Gabriel, with dark hair and blue eyes similar in coloring to her father’s portrait.
“Children, I would like to introduce you to your new governess, Miss Eliza Bolton. Eliza, this is Lord Gabriel Huntley and Lady Charlotte Huntley,” Mrs. Philips gestured to each person as she spoke. “Say hello, children.”
The twins got to their feet. Gabriel bowed, while Charlotte curtsied. “Hello, Miss Bolton.”
“Hello, children,” Eliza greeted with a smile.
Having done as they were told, the children sat back down and returned to playing, ignoring everyone else in the room. Eliza stood and watched them for a moment before Mrs. Philips led her back out into the hall. “It may take some time for them to warm up to you.”
“I am sure,” Eliza agreed. “It is never easy to welcome a stranger into one’s life and home, let alone allow that stranger to have authority over you.”
“Indeed,” Mrs. Philips murmured, inspecting Eliza’s face. “You are wise beyond your years.”
“Tragedy has a way of changing us into people that we might not otherwise be,” Eliza replied.
“Yes, it does. I think you will get along quite nicely here at Rosenhill, Eliza.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Philips.”
“You are just like your father, hiring a pretty face for your own amusement,” the Dowager Duchess accused as she abandoned her erect posture to lounge upon the settee in disdain.
“You complained about having to spend time with your children, and now I have addressed those complaints on your behalf. Outside of that, I have no interest in the girl, I assure you,” Arthur replied.
“And you expect me to believe that you have no interest in the girl at all with the way you were fawning all over her. Bowing to the help, honestly Arthur, could you be any more debasing? Lest you have forgotten, you are the Duke of Rosenhill. For the sake of your family, can you at least pretend to be worthy of the title?” His mother’s words that would have once hurt him in childhood merely bounced off of him now.
“You may believe as you wish, Mother. I apologize if I have disappointed you,” Arthur answered. He knew his father had been repeatedly abusive and unfaithful to her and that her anger was more truthfully toward the deceased than the living.
“Do as you wish. You always do.” She sighed and waved her hand in dismissal.
Arthur bowed then left the drawing room. His mother was wrong, but she was right about one thing – the new governess was beautiful. There was something about her eyes, so dark brown, that was familiar. He could not quite recall where he had encountered her.
Perhaps Mrs. Philips will know where I might have seen her. Arthur descended the stairs to her office. She is quite enchanting. He had found himself being drawn to her as she had stood before him. I should be careful not to prove Mother right about my intentions towards the girl. I will not fall prey to temptation as my father did before me.
He knocked on the door but did not receive a reply. He had forgotten that Eliza might still be in the nursery. Arthur turned to leave and caught sight of a cloaked figure exiting swiftly through the back door. “You there!” Arthur gave chase. He would gladly give food to anyone who needed it, but he would not countenance stealing.
Charging out of the door in pursuit, he grabbed the fleeing figure by the arm turning them around to face him. “You?”
It was the new governess, but she looked like…the girl on the street at night! Arthur released her immediately for fear of being recognized himself.
“Yes, Your Grace?” she asked, a confused look in her eyes. “Have I done something wrong?”
“No, not at all. Please, forgive me, Miss Bolton. I mistook you for an intruder. You left so swiftly you see with the dark cloak and all,” he attempted to explain.
“Oh,” she paused looking down at her cloak. “I suppose such a thing might look suspicious with how quickly I was departing. It might have looked as though I were fleeing with the silver. Forgive me, Your Grace. I simply wished to hurry home and tell my family about the wonderful news.”
“Of course, you were. Please, do not let me keep you. I promise to be more hospitable in the future.” Arthur gave a slight bow in apology.
“You have been perfectly hospitable. I thank you, Your Grace.” With a quick curtsy, she was gone.
Arthur watched her walk down the drive until she disappeared from sight. What was a beautiful, sweet-natured governess doing out on the streets at night? I cannot imagine any family would find such behavior appropriate.
Arthur contemplated all the possible reasons a girl would have to be out alone after dark and came up with very few. A lover’s tryst perhaps? The scandal such a thing would bring. Have I been too cavalier in hiring her?
Arthur shook his head in reply to his own question. He trusted Mrs. Philips’ opinion explicitly. She would never have introduced them to a girl of weak character. He would simply have to trust that the girl had had a good reason.
It would not be amiss to keep a watchful eye on her. Just until I know the truth behind her actions. They were desperate for a governess, but he wanted his siblings to be safe and cared for by someone of good character. They had had quite enough of the opposite from their father already.
His thoughts were interrupted by Mrs. Philips coming down the stairs. “Your Grace? Is something amiss?”
“No, I was just seeing Miss Bolton out,” he answered. “Charming girl. Is there anything more I should know about her apart from what you have already shared?” he asked.
“No. Why do you ask?”
“I saw her the other night. The lady in distress I spoke to you about, it was her. I am almost certain of it,” he explained.
“Surely not. The Coles would never allow a daughter of theirs to go about at night unaccompanied,” Mrs. Philips protested.
“Be that as it may, I am certain it was she. What call would such a young lady have to such behavior?”
“What call does a Duke have to the same?” she pointed out.
“Ah, touché,” he replied adequately shamed for his suspicious musings. “Nevertheless would you mind keeping an eye on her with the twins to be sure?”
“Of course, Your Grace,” Mrs. Philips agreed. “But I am sure there is a perfectly good explanation for it all.”
“Let us hope so, for if not, she must go.”
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