About the book
A past that haunts them...a present that calls for their freedom...
With her reputation in tatters after her brother's misdeeds came to light, Valeria Walsham has completely disappeared from society. Living with her sweet aunt, she has made one very important decision about her life: she will build her walls so high, that no one will ever get to hurt her again.
Despite his father's less than virtuous legacy, Thomas MacKinnon, Baron of Woodsford, is a man of honor. And that includes standing by Valeria's side through thick and thin, despite knowing that she doesn't return his feelings. But is that the truth?
High as they are, Valeria's walls crumble piece by piece every time she finds herself in Thomas' presence, and when someone tries to use his father's past against him, she does what she swore to never do: join society once more, reclaim what is hers by saving both her brother and the man she loves.
The woman was coming.
Valeria Walsham, the twenty-year-old sister of Richard Walsham, the Viscount of Midford.
She was coming to town. She was coming to stay.
The very thought of her made him feel as if his blood was boiling.
And her brother—why, he was a common criminal. A noble Viscount—but he had fallen from grace. He would never amount to anything in Society now. And his sister was disgraced right alongside him.
Well, if anything, that puts the power in my hands, doesn’t it? She’ll do whatever I say now. She won’t have any other choice.
Still, just the thought of that woman…
He wondered if he would ever be able to set aside the anger he felt toward her. He wondered if he would ever be able to live alongside her.
This may be a hopeless endeavor.
“What will you do, Mrs. Paulson?” Valeria asked despondently.
She was seated on her bed, watching as her brother’s servants packed everything she owned into one large trunk. It felt strange to look around her room and see it stripped bare.
Just like my life. Everything I knew is gone.
She kept expecting to see her brother’s grinning face leaning around the doorframe. She knew he wouldn’t come, of course. After what had happened, she would never see him again—not unless she went to visit him in gaol, of course.
Right now, she felt as though she never would. Her anger with him was too great.
But she couldn’t help missing him a bit as well. It had been just the two of them for so long. Now she was on her own.
Mrs. Paulson carefully folded a gown and placed it in the trunk. “I’ll go to my eldest son until I can find work,” she said. “You’re not to worry, Lady Valeria. There’s always work for a housekeeper.”
“I wish you could come with me,” Valeria said, feeling disconsolate. “I won’t know anybody there. I’ll miss you. All of you.”
“And we’ll miss you, too,” Mrs. Paulson said. “But moving on is the right thing for you to do, Lady Valeria. You certainly can’t stay in this Manor all alone.”
“I would rather stay here,” Valeria said. “I would rather be alone than to have to face people and talk about what’s happened.”
“I’m sure your aunt won’t question you too much about it,” Mrs. Paulson said. “She’ll want to give you time to recover from everything. You did say she was a kind woman.”
“She’s always been kind to me,” Valeria said. “But it isn’t as if we’re close to one another. She didn’t get along with Richard, and she rarely visited us.” She sighed. “I’m sure she’ll tell me that she knew all along he would come to no good.”
“Don’t you listen to a word of that,” Mrs. Paulson said firmly. “Nobody knew, Lady Valeria. Nobody could have known what Lord Midford had gotten himself into.”
“But now all the money Father left us has gone to pay his debts,” Valeria said. “Oh, I should have known something was wrong. A few years ago, he was the kind to spend money as soon as he got it. But in the past year, he became increasingly tightfisted. I should have suspected there was something behind it.”
“You couldn’t have known,” Mrs. Paulson repeated briskly. She was now gathering the assortment of items that lay scattered across Valeria’s vanity. “You’ll have a perfectly good life with your aunt, now. You’re very fortunate to have someone willing to take you in.”
“Oh, I know,” Valeria said. “I might have had nowhere to go at all.”
“And at least she’s a kind lady,” Mrs. Paulson said. “You might have ended up somewhere unpleasant.”
Valeria laughed. “You’re right, of course, Mrs. Paulson,” she said. “Just as you always are. I shouldn’t be complaining or worrying when I’ve been so lucky.”
“Now, Lady Valeria,” Mrs. Paulson said. “I certainly did not mean to suggest that it was wrong for you to feel distraught. After all you’ve been through! Anyone would be upset.”
“I’m going to miss you,” Valeria said. “So very much. Perhaps there will be a need for servants in my aunt’s Manor.”
“No, you’re not to ask her,” Mrs. Paulson said sharply. “She’s doing you a kindness by taking you in, My Lady. And it’s enough that she’s allowing Charlotte to come with you. You won’t ask her to hire the rest of your brother’s household. She couldn’t possibly have any need of us, and it will make you seem ungrateful. That’s not the start you want to make when you first enter your new home.”
Valeria nodded. She knew that Mrs. Paulson was right. Having Charlotte, her lady’s maid, along with her as she began this new phase in her life would be a tremendous relief. She couldn’t think about what it would mean to her to have the other servants she had grown up with, the people who had all but raised her.
Just like everything else, she was letting them go today.
She looked around her room. It had belonged to her since childhood. She could still remember so many moments spent here. She remembered having tea brought to her here when she was ill, eating her meals with her governess when she was a child, standing before the looking glass and admiring the way a gown draped around her figure as she’d grown.
And every night—every night of her life—she had fallen asleep in this bed, listening to the familiar sounds of the birds that nested outside her window and the wind in the trees.
This place was home.
And now she had to leave.
A knock came at the door. Mrs. Paulson bustled over and opened it.
It was Charlotte. Her mouse-brown hair had slipped down in bits and pieces, framing her chin, and Valeria knew she had been working hard. She felt another pang of shame over her own reaction to what was happening. After all, Charlotte was leaving everything she knew behind. She, too, was leaving the Manor where she had worked all her life.
And now Valeria was remembering her childhood. She and Charlotte had been young together—Charlotte was the daughter of her mother’s lady’s maid—and they had been permitted to play together often. They had been friends.
She still considered Charlotte her dearest friend.
At least the two of us will be together. It’s better than nothing. At least I’ll still have something to hold onto for comfort as I start this new life.
“My Lady,” Charlotte said. Though she often dispensed with formality and referred to Valeria by her given name when they were in private, she knew better than to do so in front of anyone else. “The carriage is packed and ready to go when you are.”
“Thank you, Charlotte.” Valeria sighed. “I suppose there’s no point in putting this off, is there?”
“In fact, you would do well to get your journey underway,” Mrs. Paulson said. “Debt collectors will likely be arriving soon to go through what you’ve left behind.”
Valeria felt tears come to her eyes. “If only we could take more with us,” she said. “I know it’s silly to waste time worrying about possessions. There are more important things. I know that. But even so—”
“Of course, My Lady,” Charlotte said. “It’s only natural that you should feel this way. It’s difficult to leave the things we’re used to behind.”
“I always hated that ugly painting my father hung in the foyer,” Valeria said. “The orange flowers, you know the one I mean? It’s ghastly. But now… I don’t know. The idea that I might never see it again—that I will never see it again—”
She broke off, shaking her head.
“I understand, My Lady,” Charlotte said. “But we’ll move on to other things. We’re going to have a new home, after all. Who knows what delights await us there?”
Valeria smiled at her friend. “You always stay cheerful, Charlotte,” she said. “I really don’t know how you do it, but I hope you know how much I value that about you. If it weren’t for your wonderful attitude, this would be much more difficult.”
“I’m glad I’m able to be by your side, My Lady,” Charlotte said.
Valeria got to her feet. “All right,” she said “I suppose you’re right, Mrs. Paulson. We should go before the debt collectors arrive. There’s nothing to be gained by delaying our departure.” She turned to her lady’s maid. “Come, Charlotte. Let’s take our leave of this place.”
Charlotte nodded and walked with her out of the bedroom. To her credit, she did not break her stride, did not stop to look back, and that gave Valeria the courage to do the same thing.
The carriage was waiting for them in front of the Manor. Valeria looked down at the chipped cobblestone, remembering how it had been damaged. Richard had been playing with a hammer when they were very young, and had struck the stone. He had been in terrible trouble with their father after that. That evening, she had gone to his room, wanting to bring him tea and cheer him up, and he had taught her to play chess.
Richard is gone now. Gone from my life. Just like everything else.
He hadn’t been the older brother she had thought him to be. Maybe, in her mind, she had been trying to make him fit that mold, because she had wanted it so badly. But he had always put his own interests and desires first.
“My Lady?” Charlotte asked.
“I’m sorry,” Valeria said. “I was just thinking.”
“About your brother again?”
“You’re too clever, Charlotte.”
“No, My Lady. I just know you very well.”
Valeria sighed. “I don’t know how he could have done it,” she said. “Spent all that money we didn’t have. Didn’t he realize that he would be putting me in debt, too? Destroying my prospects? Could he really have cared only for himself?”
“People can surprise you, I’m afraid,” Charlotte said gently. “I don’t doubt your brother cared for you—”
“He had a strange way of showing it.”
“Well, he was irresponsible,” Charlotte said. “I suppose some people find it more difficult than others to do the right thing. I try to be grateful every time I find myself with the strength to know what I ought to do, and to do it.”
Valeria nodded. “If only he had come to me,” she said. “Or perhaps sought other counsel, even, when he realized his debts were out of control. But trading in stolen goods to pay off his debts—he knew that was wrong, Charlotte. You can’t tell me he didn’t know.”
“Ah, well,” Charlotte said. “He made a bad decision, true enough.”
“A bad decision? My brother is a criminal, Charlotte. Richard has been convicted of a crime. Who knows whether he’ll ever be released?” Valeria shook her head. “And that disgraces me even more. Though I suppose it’s awful that I’m thinking about myself right now.”
“Of course it isn’t,” Charlotte took her arm. “You’re allowed to consider your own needs, My Lady. You needed a brother you could trust, one who would look after you and provide for you. Lord Midford was supposed to give you that, and he didn’t.”
Valeria turned and looked back at her home. “I’m really going to miss this place,” she said quietly. “It’s meant so much to me over the years, and it’s only now that I’m realizing how important it was. How big a part of me it was.”
“Only one drink tonight,” Duncan said, joining Thomas at the bar. “I have to be home early.”
“That’s unusual for you,” Thomas said with a little laugh. He took one of the drinks he had already ordered and pushed it toward his friend. “You’re usually the last to leave the bar.”
“I know,” Duncan said. “But Mother wants me at home early tonight—”
“How is your mother?” Thomas asked. “She was ill recently, wasn’t she?”
“She was, but she’s recovered well,” Duncan said, taking a sip of his ale. “You know Mother. She’s as strong as a horse. Nothing will keep her down.”
“Yes, Lady Earlington has quite the reputation in that regard,” Thomas laughed. The thought of his friend’s mother, who was a formidable woman despite her advancing years, filled him with mirth. “I’ll have to call on her sometime soon.”
“Yes, you should,” Duncan agreed. “Especially as my cousin is coming to town, and I know you’ll like to see her.”
He grinned broadly.
Thomas nearly spat out his ale. He swallowed it, then said, “What? Your cousin?”
“Yes, Valeria,” Duncan said. “That’s why Mother’s asked me to come home early tonight. I’m to greet her and help her settle in.”
“But she won’t want to see me,” Thomas said, his heart sinking suddenly at the memory of his last interaction with Lady Valeria. “She doesn’t like me at all, Duncan, or don’t you remember?”
“Nonsense,” Duncan said. “She’s shy, that’s all.”
“I don’t think so,” Thomas said. “Remember, we saw one another at your mother’s Christmas ball a year ago. I asked her to dance and she turned up her nose and walked away!”
“I don’t remember anything like that taking place,” Duncan said. “Are you certain that’s what happened?”
“Of course I am,” Thomas said. He didn’t think he would soon forget the way it had felt to watch her walk away from him, as if she was too good to give him the time of day. She hadn’t seemed like a lady who was simply shy. She had seemed haughty and unpleasant.
For several weeks following the ball, he had told himself that he had no desire to see her again. That if that was the way she was going to treat him, he wasn’t going to waste his time.
But the truth was, she was never far from his thoughts. She never had been.
Duncan was watching him closely. “I know you want to come over to the Manor,” he said. “I know you want to see her. You’ve been in love with her for years.”
“I’m not in love with her.”
“Oh, yes, you are. You can’t lie to me about this, Thomas. I know you too well.”
“I admire her, certainly. She’s beautiful.”
“It goes beyond that,” Duncan said sagely. “You would court her if you could, wouldn’t you?”
“That could never happen,” Thomas said. In truth, he was a little frustrated with his friend for raising the subject at all. It was difficult to think about a courtship with Lady Valeria, because the truth was that there was nothing he desired more.
“It could happen,” Duncan said. “I’m sure Mother would give her permission. She’s known you all your life. She knows you’re a worthy gentleman.”
Thomas was momentarily distracted. “Why is it your mother’s place to give permission for Lady Valeria to be courted?” he asked. “Isn’t it her brother I would be asking? If I were to make such a request, that is.”
“You haven’t heard?” Duncan asked.
“Richard was arrested for trading in stolen goods,” Duncan said. “He’s up to his eyeballs in debt, too. That’s why Valeria is coming to stay with us. She’s alone in the world.”
Thomas felt a pang of empathy for the lady he so admired. “That’s awful,” he said quietly. “What a terrible thing to have happen. And it couldn’t have happened to a sweeter lady.”
“Sweeter?” Duncan raised his eyebrows. “You’ve just been telling me how she turned up her nose at you. Now you think she’s sweet?”
“Well… I suppose turning up her nose at me doesn’t mean she isn’t a sweet person generally,” Thomas said.
“You’re in love with her,” Duncan said. “You want to believe the best of her, that’s all.”
Thomas sighed and stared down into his mug. “What difference does it make whether I’m in love with her or not?” he asked. “If I didn’t know better, I would think you were trying to torture me with this, Duncan.”
“Of course I’m not,” Duncan said. “Why don’t you come to the Manor this Friday? Mother’s having a dinner party. You can ask her then whether she’ll consent to have you court Valeria. I know she’ll say yes. Valeria has gone through such trials lately. It will be good for her to have a bit of happiness in her life.”
“It’s not a matter of asking your mother,” Thomas said.
“Yes it is, Thomas. I told you, she’s responsible for Valeria’s affairs.”
“That’s not what I mean. I could never pursue a courtship with a lady who didn’t want it,” Thomas said. “I could never take pleasure in such a match.”
“You can’t have decided that she doesn’t want you based solely on the events of one Christmas ball.”
“Of course not,” Thomas said. “You say that you’ve known for years of my feelings for her, Duncan—don’t you think she’s been aware too?”
“What do you mean?”
“Every time we’ve met—every time she’s visited you at your home and our paths have crossed—I’ve made a point of trying to speak to her. I’ve told her how lovely I find her. I’ve asked her questions about her life—what she enjoys, the books she’s read, her hobbies. I’ve asked her to dance on more than one occasion. And always, she turns me down. She finds a way to put a quick stop to the conversation, and she hurries away. She couldn’t be more clear about the fact that she has no desire to spend time in my company.”
Duncan was quiet for a moment. “I hadn’t realized that,” he said. “I know she’s quiet around strangers—”
“But I wouldn’t say the two of us are strangers,” Thomas said. “If you mention my name to her, I’m sure she’ll know who I am. We’ve interacted on plenty of occasions. She’ll remember me.”
“Maybe she’ll have changed her mind,” Duncan said.
“You seem eager for something to happen between us.”
“Well, it’s just that I know how difficult things have been for her lately,” Duncan said. “She’s left her whole life behind to come here, and I’d like her to have a good time. She deserves something pleasant, for a change. She deserves to feel appreciated, to be taken on outings, and told she’s beautiful. Her brother never treated her very well, you see.”
Thomas frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know the details,” Duncan admitted. “Only that he was rather selfish and heartless. Richard was always that way. I always thought he must be very difficult to live with—though I never dreamed that he would turn to a life of crime, of course.”
“I do remember that he was often unpleasant to be around,” Thomas said. “Although he was closer to our age, I never wanted to spend time with him when your cousins visited.”
“Do you remember the night we took him to this pub?” Duncan asked.
“Yes, now that you mention it, I do,” Thomas said. “He started a brawl, didn’t he?”
“And in the end we were all thrown out of the place,” Duncan said, rolling his eyes. “I can’t tell you what I went through to get the proprietor to let me come back here. He was all set to give me a lifetime ban, but I convinced him in the end.”
“That’s lucky,” Thomas said. “I do like this place. I wonder why I wasn’t banned?”
“Never got a good look at you,” Duncan said sagely. “He didn’t know who you were.”
Thomas nodded. He was accustomed to not being seen, not being known. When they were younger, Duncan had been the same way—invisible in crowds, unknown to strangers. But after his father’s death, he had become Viscount of Earlington. Unlike Thomas’s own title of Baron of Woodsford, Duncan’s was one that people concerned themselves with. They were interested in who he was, and they took the time to know him.
There were perks to this, of course. If a pub brawl was started, Thomas was less likely to find himself in trouble over it.
But there were drawbacks, too. Sometimes he couldn’t help but wonder whether a lady like Lady Valeria might have liked him a little better if he held a little higher standing in Society.
Duncan finished his drink. “I ought to be getting home,” he said. “She should be arriving very shortly. But say you’ll at least consider coming to the party on Friday. Even if you don’t plan to pursue courtship with my cousin, I’d like to have you there.”
“I’ll come,” Thomas said. He couldn’t deny his eagerness to see Lady Valeria, even though he was sure it would cause him pain in the end. “I should pay my respects to your mother, in any case.”
“Right,” Duncan said with a laugh. “My mother. I’m sure that’s who you’re coming to see.”
“Don’t make fun,” Thomas said, annoyed. “I can’t help my feelings for your cousin, Duncan. If I could, I think perhaps I would, knowing as I do that they aren’t reciprocated.”
“I didn’t mean to make you feel badly,” Duncan said, looking rather abashed. “Listen, it may not be as bad as you think it is, Thomas. I truly do think she’ll be pleased to see you. But come along to the party and find out.”
“Very well,” Thomas said. “I’ll be there. If nothing else, it will be a pleasure for me to see her again.”
Even if she does tell me she has no interest in me. Even if she orders me never to speak to her again.
He was being dramatic and he knew it. Lady Valeria might not have taken much interest in him in the past, but she had certainly never ordered him away. There was scant chance she would, for example, refuse to attend the dinner party because of his presence.
I’ll spend the evening in her company, and then I’ll return home. It will be very pleasant.
He hoped that was so.
He bid Duncan farewell. They left the pub together and headed out into the night, going their separate ways as they did so.
Thomas made his way up the street toward his home, considering all that he had heard.
So Lady Valeria was coming here. And not just for a visit, but for good. She would be living at Earlington Manor, a place he visited frequently. He would be able to see her as often as he liked.
Really, it was almost too good to be true.
And perhaps Duncan had been correct to suggest that there was cause for hope. After all, they had never spent any great length of time together before. But maybe now that they had as long as they liked, they would be able to get to know one another better.
Maybe she would find that she liked him after all.
Thomas couldn’t quell the fluttering of hope in his chest at the thought. Wouldn’t that be wonderful, he thought. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, after all the times she had rejected him or turned away from him, she discovered that he was worthy of her time and attention?
And if that does happen—well, then I would be free to court her, and I could actually feel good about what I was doing.
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
To Free a Trapped Baroness is live on Amazon NOW!