About the book
Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are those we trust the most...
Waking up to find out that she is to marry a man of her father’s choosing, Miss Evelina Ayles finds solace in the one thing she has left: the pseudonym that she uses in her letters to her best friend Abigail.
Matthew Warren, Earl of Hardingham, never expected to find a letter in the middle of the road while on his way to see his long-time friend, Jonathan Ayles. Or to become so frustrated with his inability to discover the identity of the mysterious “Elizabeth.”
With her wedding day approaching like a bad omen, Evelina makes one final request before her freedom is snatched away from her forever: a single meeting with the enigmatic “Percy”, whose poetic hand has captured her heart.
What Matthew and Evelina never expected though is how inextricably connected their fates are. Or to what gruesome lengths a certain someone will go to tear them apart forever. And then Evelina suddenly goes missing...
It seemed as if the change in their lives happened in a moment.
Evelina and Abigail, each fourteen years of age, each born of equal rank into the peerage, were as ever sitting in the schoolroom side by side. Known at The Farris Seminary for Young Ladies as inseparable chums, they were hard at work practicing a piece for the Seminary’s upcoming musicale.
The music master had just complimented Evelina’s mezzo soprano voice as quite exquisite. He added that Abigail had such a gifted touch on the pianoforte. And of course, the girls were lovely children, one dark, one fair, both just showing the first hint of blossoming young womanhood. The music master was sure their duet would be the high point of the recital.
A maid entered. “Miss Abigail?” she said to Abigail. “The headmistress must see you immediately.”
“Tell Mrs. Farris that Miss Abigail will join her momentarily. We are making such progress on the duet—”
“Please forgive me, sir,” said the little maid. “Mrs. Farris was most insistent, most upset—”
With one quick, carefree, brilliant smile at Evelina, Abigail left the room. It would be the last time in quite a while that anyone saw Abigail smile like that again.
How do I break this news? Mrs. Farris was a kindly woman, underneath the necessary authoritative façade. But never in her teaching career had she had to deliver news like this to a young lady in her care.
Abigail Hill was announced. “My dear,” Mrs. Farris said, “I have had hot tea brought, and my husband The Reverend Farris will be here momentarily. Let us just sit quietly for a few moments and sip some tea until he gets here.”
Mrs. Farris had the maid pour the tea, then pass cream and sugar. Eventually, Reverend Farris joined them.
“My dear child,” he said slowly, “there is no way to deliver this terrible news any more easily to you. Your noble father, Viscount Murton, is dead.”
“But—my Lord Father was a vigorous man—he was in his prime, Reverend. How—?” Abigail was wringing her hands and thrusting them through her fair locks, distractedly disarranging her pretty hair.
“My dear…we live in most difficult times. You might have heard that since the Corn Acts were passed last year, the price of even a simple loaf of bread has become beyond the means of many laborers. We’re done with Napoleon, but many speculators have since deliberately kept prices at wartime highs, while workers’ wages have precipitously dropped.
“Meanwhile, so many of the crops are failing. Strangely, it’s as if we will have no summer growing season at all this year…some say it’s due to a volcano on the other side of the world….”
“But what does this have to do with my Lord Father? He was a kind man—he tried to lower his tenants’ rents somewhat—he was not a man who would have wished harm to anyone—”
“Child, there are agitators at work among the suffering and starving. They march behind the banner of ‘Bread or Blood.’ There were terrible riots just two nights ago on The Isle of Ely and in the surrounding areas, very near where your Murton family seat is located.
“Why, one of my own closest colleagues, a Vicar of the Church, was forced from his home during these riots—he and his family as well! Their vicarage was burned to the ground. And he was a good man, too.”
“But my Lord Father—?”
“My dear, your family home was torched by the rioters and badly damaged. The Viscount, whilst trying to get the Viscountess and your younger sister, Miss Diana Hill, to safety—and, indeed, whilst trying to evacuate all the servants and oversee the firefighting efforts—succumbed during the emergency to a fatal apoplectic attack. I am so very sorry….”
Abigail sat in silent shock. Mrs. Farris signaled for more tea, holding the cup to Abigail’s chilly lips herself.
“Fetch the apothecary, my dear,“ Reverend Farris said to his wife. “The child is about to swoon.”
It was three more days before Evelina was permitted to see her best friend. Abigail, grieving for her father and in shock at the near destruction of her family home, had been in a feverish state. She had been kept isolated.
“Abbie, what will happen? What will you do?” Evelina whispered, sitting on the side of Abigail’s bed in the school infirmary. Maids were hovering nearby, and Evelina instinctively knew her friend would not want the details of her family troubles to be the subject of any more gossip than necessary.
“Evie, it’s terrible….”
“Your Lord Father….” Evelina well understood her friend’s pain. If anything were ever to happen to her own dear father, Viscount Perlington, she did not know how she could bear it.
“Yes. But Evie, at least he’s beyond pain now. He’s in my heart, and he always will be. You know, I talk to him sometimes…I wonder if he can hear me….”
“Of course he can, Abbie. He loved you so much. That doesn’t ever end, I’m sure of it.” Evelina clutched her friend’s hand. She wanted so much for that to be true, for Abigail’s sake.
“But it’s not just that, Evie. It’s everything else, too. We’re to lose Murton Manor. It seems Father got deeply in debt, because he was cheated during the war years by prospectors who promised him quick ways of rebuilding the family fortune. And since then, he lowered the tenants’ rents, trying to be humane, just when we most needed the money ourselves.
“Murton Manor is so damaged by fire that we could never afford to rebuild now. We’ll have to sell it for hardly anything. We can’t keep it up.”
“Abbie, that’s terrible. What will you do? And the Viscountess, and little Miss Diana?”
“We must all move in with my eldest sister.”
“No,” said Evelina, after a moment’s silence. “Not with Her Grace the Duchess. Oh, Abbie, no.”
The two dear friends had no need to put their thoughts into any further words. Abigail had often complained bitterly to Evelina about her sister, the Duchess of Aspreydale, whose vanity, cruelty, and pettiness had for years made her two younger sisters’ lives unbearable. A highly successful Society marriage had not improved the personality of the former Miss Caroline Hill—if anything, she was more high-handed and ill-tempered than ever.
“But you need not see that much of her, at least during school terms,” Evelina offered hopefully.
“Evie, that’s just the problem. There will be no more money available for school fees. We will have to move into the Duchess’ household year round. I am to help with her children.”
“Like a governess.”
“Like a poor relation. At least a governess gets paid a salary.
“Evie, I dreamed of our carrying on with our literary ambitions—we were each to be influential authoresses—that’s all over for me now, you know that.”
They sat in silence, holding hands. “What can I do, Abbie?”
“You must write to me. Answering you will make me believe I am keeping my own writing talent alive.”
“Of course. But, Abbie, if we are to open our hearts in our letters, we cannot sign our own names. Her Grace your sister would take it amiss if she learned you were complaining of her.”
“Good thought. I will be ‘Fanny’—and you….”
“I will be ‘Elizabeth.’ And we will go on sharing each and every one of our thoughts and dreams with each other, as if we were side by side.
“And Abbie? There must be many important authoresses out there who started out writing under pen names, although in reality they were but governesses or poor relations.”
“Do you think so?”
“I know so.”
They said good-bye then. And their letters to each other were to continue all their lives.
Four Years Later
“I think I’ll never find a woman I could bear to marry,” Matthew Warren, the Earl of Hardingham, said aloud, as he rode at a leisurely pace through Cambridgeshire toward his good friend’s home.
His sleek black stallion, Demon, twitched his ears but did not whicker. Demon was used to his young master’s running commentary on life, and he realized no reply was required of him at this time.
Matthew had said precisely the same thing to his mother, the Dowager Countess, the previous evening. “I’m fed up, Mother. I’m beginning to think I’ll never marry. Of the young ladies I meet, most are fools, and those who aren’t fools pretend they are—which is even worse, in my estimation.”
Lady Hardingham, known to be high strung at the best of times, began to tremble, waving her lace handkerchief over her eyes as a threat of tears to come.
“Matthew! How can you put me through this—your own mother? Why, the goal of this entire weekend house party was for you to meet some suitable young ladies of appropriate rank. Do you have any idea how much work this weekend was for me, what a strain on my delicate constitution? I’m not supposed to be under stress, the physician has said so.
“Yet I exerted myself for you. Everything was perfect, the flowers, the music—everyone said so—”
“They were, dear Mother, they were,” he soothed her. Matthew knew the Dowager Countess to be of a nervous temperament, and he knew social events were truly an agony for her. A good son, he reached over and patted her shoulder comfortingly.
“Then what more could I have done? Wasn’t there any young lady there who might have suited you—or even one worth considering?
“Don’t you realize, son, how much is riding on this—the very future of the Earldom? Yet you persist in vexing me….”
“Mother…here, Mother, let me pour you a little cordial, and I’ll try to explain.
“Mother,” he said, as she sipped her cordial and seemed to calm herself a bit, “I simply cannot spend my life with a woman who does not share my interests. She need not always agree with my opinion—in fact, it would be stimulating to my intellect if she sometimes didn’t! But without such a communion of the minds, what would we talk about during the long winter nights?”
“You would talk about your children,” the Dowager Countess replied with a touch of acerbity. “Once a woman has children, she has no room in her head for anything else, believe me.
“Your late father understood that about me, and he admired me for it. He didn’t care that I’ve never read a book from cover to cover in my whole life!”
“Mother, I do love you very much. And you have the kindest and best of hearts—I would not trade you for any other mother in the land. But my late father, the Earl, was a brilliant man. He loved his books.”
“That had nothing to do with me!” said the Dowager Countess indignantly. “No more than my prizewinning gardening interested him.”
Matthew realized he and his mother would never understand each other on this issue. The late Earl had been frayed by his wife’s endless nerves and ceaseless, nonsensical prattling. He chose to escape into the realm of the intellect, where for a brief time each day, he could bolt and lock the door against her. Yet at the same time, he protected her, too, from any sense of her own inadequacy.
“Mother, you have been a wonderful wife and mother. But for myself, I need a woman who can bond with me over other things—literature, philosophy….”
“A bluestocking! Matthew, are you out of your mind? One of those frowzy women with dowdy, down-at-hem gowns and hair like birds’ nests? Here, in Hardingham Manor, as Countess—in my place?”
“Now, now, I don’t think we need to give up style and beauty to find a fine mind, Mother. Some women out there must have both,” Matthew said, trying to appease the Dowager Countess—who again appeared on the edge of hysteria.
“Indeed! There were fifteen young ladies here this weekend, Matthew, chaperoned by their mamas and grandmamas. All titled, all quite lovely. All of their families long-standing friends of your late father and me. Can you honestly tell me, Matthew, that not one of them had an ounce of brain or wit about her?”
Lady Georgiana, sister of the Duke of Aspreydale, had come to Hardingham Manor that weekend with the specific goal of snaring the Earl of Hardingham in marriage.
Lady Georgiana sat at her looking glass before the ball. This was the main event of the weekend. People would start leaving tomorrow morning for other destinations. Anything she wished to accomplish must happen tonight.
Her empire-waisted ballgown was a delicate lilac, which suited her icy-blond hair and gave her blue eyes a violet tint. Her lady’s maid, trained in France, was a wonder at creating elaborate yet seemingly artless hairstyles. Tonight, Lady Georgiana admitted, the maid had exceeded herself.
Diamonds? They would enhance the frosty platinum of her hair. Sapphires? They would emphasize the fire in her violet-blue eyes. Sapphires, she decided, and motioned to the maid accordingly.
A few touches to temples, wrists, and décolletage of a rare, expensive, musky scent from the south of France, and Lady Georgiana knew she would be the most irresistible woman at the ball tonight.
She was formally announced as she descended the grand staircase of Hardingham Manor to the ballroom. She saw the Earl look up and give an appreciative nod. So far, so good!
In Lady Georgiana’s opinion, the Earl of Hardingham was as handsome a young man as one was likely to ever encounter in the haut ton. Tall, with broad, strong shoulders. Glittering green eyes. Blond hair slightly waving over an intellectual brow. What beautiful babies we would have, fair-haired and light-eyed!
Of course, as a good host, he gave every young lady a dance. It was said that his mother, the Dowager Countess—the silliest woman in all of Cambridgeshire, if people were to be believed—had compiled the guest list. It was said she was eager to see him marry.
Her son, the Earl, was frequently abroad in the capitals of Europe. Although active in Parliament, he chose not to participate in the London Season, which ran simultaneously with the House of Lords’ sessions. When home at Hardingham, gossips reported that he cared little for Society, preferring instead to breed his horses and dogs and tend to his tenant farmers. Marriage did not appear to be a priority for him.
Although the Earl danced with each young lady once, he gave Lady Georgiana three dances—a high compliment. Lady Georgiana could see her mama, the Dowager Duchess, smiling in sly triumph behind her fan.
He brought Lady Georgiana an ice, and suggested a walk about the gardens in the cool evening air. Her mama looked on with undisguised delight. Tonight was a contest, after all, and she was backing her beautiful daughter to win.
Seated on a bench among the lush plants and the marble statuary, they made light conversation. Lady Georgiana was far from stupid, but she had been raised to believe young men preferred girls who had few opinions of their own. She did, in fact, have a clever, manipulative brain, and she had many opinions. But she did not make the effort to learn many facts.
“Are you in London often, Lord Hardingham?” she ventured.
“Usually just when Parliament is in session, Lady Georgiana,” the Earl replied.
“Parliament—how exciting! I cannot imagine the important things that get discussed and decided there…it must quite keep you up at night!” Lady Georgiana purred.
“That’s just the thing,” the Earl replied, with some feeling. “It does keep me up at night. Why, with the riots in Peterloo last year—all those poor workers getting cut down by the militia. I can’t help but believe it goes back to Parliament’s voting in favor of the Corn Acts back in 1815. And I’m ashamed I was one who voted in favor…”
“The Corn Acts favored the landowners—kept the price of bread at outrageously high wartime prices, even though we were long done with Napoleon. Add to that the crop failures in 1816…as a result, the people were starving, they had to riot. And it’s not over. I fear there’s worse ahead for this country than Peterloo.”
“Waterloo? What a glorious triumph for Britain—were you actually there, My Lord?” Lady Georgiana was out of her depths. She didn’t care enough to pay attention to current events—except where they affected her directly. So she truly did not comprehend what he was rattling on about—although his eagerness to confide in her must be a good sign, surely….
“No, no, not Waterloo—Peterloo,” he said, seeming a little annoyed.
“Peterloo? Was that another battlefield nearby Waterloo?” she asked politely.
He soon suggested the evening air might be too chill for her, and he guided her back to the ballroom.
He did not speak to her again that evening, and she had no idea what she had done wrong. It wasn’t her fault, certainly. She had tried to be polite.
“How could anyone in The Year of Our Lord 1820 not have heard of Peterloo?” Matthew asked Demon. The stallion briskly shook his head from side to side, as if in disbelief at human ignorance.
“Eighteen dead. Nearly seven-hundred injured, by some accounts, when the 15th Hussars stormed the unarmed, hungry crowds of their own English countrymen with their sabers.” Demon whinnied, sensing the distress in the Earl’s voice.
“Demon, all that suffering happened right here in England. Yet to Lady Georgiana, it might be a fairy tale from distant Arabia. How could I possibly spend my life, much less raise children, with someone so happily ignorant?
“And yet she was the very best of the young ladies on offer at last night’s ball.”
In truth, Matthew was glad to be leaving Hardingham Manor behind. His stay there had been brief—he liked it that way. Much as he loved the Dowager Countess, whenever he left the maternal embrace and the ancestral home, he felt a cooling, liberating breeze sweep over him.
Perhaps that was why there was always a distance, an aloofness about him when it came to women. He had never truly been close with his mother. Like most boys of his station, he had been sent off to school at eight years of age. He understood other men well. But not women like his Lady Mother.
Yes, she loved him and doted on him—like one of her prizewinning rosebushes. But she neither knew nor understood him. And he dreaded repeating his father’s error in marrying a young lady who was just as incompatible. Better not to marry, at least for another five or ten years.
Now, he was on his way to a long-anticipated visit to Perlington Hall, at the other end of Cambridgeshire. It had been a couple of years since he had spent time with his old schoolmate Jonathan Ayles, the only son of Viscount Perlington.
Jonathan was a good fellow—easygoing in his manner, relaxing to be with. Yet he had a sharp mind that could analyze a political muddle as acutely as it could parse an abstruse Latin sentence. He had displayed one of the best intellects among the students at Oxford, when the two of them had read philosophy there.
But as a Viscount’s only son, Jonathan could not remain forever in Oxford’s ivory tower, devoting his life to scholarship. That was a pity, in Matthew’s opinion. Brains like his friend had were rare.
Matthew was lost in these thoughts when Demon suddenly struck his hoof against a rock near the side of the road. Something white fluttered up, dislodged from a cleft in the rock, and blew into the horse’ face. It took Matthew a minute to get the nervous horse back under control.
He dismounted, looped the horse’s reins loosely around a branch of a magnificent, spreading oak tree, and retrieved the windblown item. Some folded sheets of parchment were held together by a splatter of sealing wax. “To Fanny,” the outside read.
Should he read it? Well, if the proper thing was to see that the letter reaches the person it was meant for, he could only learn that by opening it and reading further.
The sun was high in the sky. Thanks to his valet, Trent, there would be a simple lunch packed in his saddlebag—probably just bread, cheese, and the like. A stoppered jug of ale, perhaps, and an apple or two.
Matthew realized he was quite hungry. He had been riding since early morning. Why not sit on that clefted rock and take a look at the letter while he ate?
It was written in a feminine hand, firm but graceful. There was neither date nor return address for the sender.
You have no idea what a comfort it is for me to be able to write to you, my faithful friend. I know you have a world of troubles of your own, particularly after losing your home but four years ago to the “Bread or Blood” rioters. To see the only home one has ever known put to the torch…to have to flee in fear for one’s life and take shelter with cold, ungenerous relatives…truly, Fanny, you are my heroine for all you have endured.
My own life is full of vexations these days, though they are petty in nature compared to your own strife. Father, who, as you know, has always held such enlightened views in general concerning the education of women, has suddenly become quite restrictive in the specific case of his own daughter! It is sad to see ones parent’s wise ideals fall so short in practice.
Father asked me what special gift I might like for my eighteenth birthday. I said I would like a particular book which is hard to come by, having only been printed in small quantities two years ago. Despite its limited circulation, it is widely discussed, praised, and denounced.
In short, I said wanted a copy of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein: The New Prometheus. My Lord Father flew into a rage the likes of which I have rarely seen—you know he usually has a gentle spirit—and said no daughter of his would read such a depraved, immoral book. Did I not know that only God has the power to create human life, and any story of a monstrous manmade creature was by definition obscene?
I challenged him on his understanding of the story, though I have not read the book myself. Wasn’t the poor, unhappy monster, railing at the scientist, merely an allegory of Adam in the Garden, saying to his Creator, “You chose to make me imperfect, and now You blame me for all my shortcomings!”?
But Father would not be moved from his position. “No daughter of mine, etc., etc….” Would it be all right for my brother to read such a book, I questioned? Of course. He, being a man, would not be corrupted by it! Whereas I, a mere female….oh, Fanny, it makes my blood boil to think upon this.
In truth, I think it is not Mrs. Shelley’s book Father objects to, so much as her personal morals. Did you know that when she was barely sixteen, she ran away from her father and hateful stepmother to live on the continent with the poet Percy Shelley—who was already married to another lady, with a baby on the way? She was just eighteen when she wrote Frankenstein.
If I was not such a dutiful daughter, Fanny, I’d run away myself. All my father and stepmother—that evil witch!—can talk about is marrying me off to some rich old man. They seem to have someone in mind already.
Fanny, will I never be able to enjoy the life of the mind, without some dull and ignorant spouse to dog me and hinder me all my days? Will I never have the freedom to write a book that stirs the intellect, as Mary Shelley was already doing at my age?
I know I should be glad I may even have a spouse—I know Her Grace your sister is doing nothing to aid you in that direction. She works you like a servant. But each of us is being blocked from using our fine minds as we should, and that is simply not fair!
The birthday gift, when it came, was the family tiara. A beautiful piece, and once my mother’s…but it wasn’t what I had asked for. And my stepmother said, “How lovely you will look, dear, wearing it on your wedding day.” She wants me out of this house, I know it.
Ever your best friend,
Long after he re-mounted Demon, indeed all the way to Perlington Hall, Matthew pondered over the letter. What a young woman! And yet only eighteen years of age! The letter itself contained such a range of emotions, succinctly and sincerely expressed. And her pithy understanding of the true meaning of the Frankenstein novel surpassed that of almost every man of his acquaintance. For of course the book had been widely discussed in his circle, too.
Could it be that such a woman truly existed? So many things she had described—her desire to inhabit the life of the mind; her fear of giving her life into the charge of a spouse of inferior intellect to her own—struck chords so near and dear to Matthew’s own heart that he almost felt physical pain from it.
And her comments to her friend about the “Bread or Blood” rioters—well, that was back in 1816, but it had happened right here in Cambridgeshire. Her sympathies did not appear to lie with the rioters, but that was all right—at least she held a well-informed opinion. Not like that painted mannequin, Lady Georgiana….
She must be of gentle birth. A common girl would not be so well educated. She spoke of her “Lord Father.” And she spoke of a family tiara…only the peerage passed such an ornament from generation to generation.
Elizabeth…a beautiful name, but hardly unique. So how in the world could he find this brilliant noblewoman?
He imagined Elizabeth to be wise and kind, but with a touch of fire in her eyes. He could not picture her precise lineaments. But closing his eyes as he rode, he felt a cool hand touching his cheek. He imagined this young woman coming willingly into his arms, exceedingly gentle, yet innocently hungry for him. Her innocence would not reflect naïveté—it would be the wordless wisdom of women throughout the ages, who instinctively knew how to inspire a man’s love and passion.
In his heart, Matthew had already decided this was Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and the only woman for him. So find her he must.
The Duchess of Aspreydale had not attended the ball at Hardingham Manor. Her third child was due in a couple of weeks, so she was restricting herself to smaller, more private social get-togethers. In any case, her mother-in-law, the Dowager Duchess, and her sister-in-law, Lady Georgiana, had been there to represent Aspreydale.
Instead, given that the Duchess was in the family way, the Dowager Countess of Hardingham paid her a private call a few days after the ball.
“My dear Duchess, we missed you at our gathering. But you look very well for your condition,” said the older woman, kissing the Duchess upon the cheek.
“These last weeks grow tiresome, My Lady,” said the Duchess. “I wish the ordeal was over.”
“I believe every woman feels that way, Your Grace. I certainly did, when I was expecting my son’s arrival into the world! But please, don’t stand on ceremony with me—this isn’t a formal call, just a quick visit to make sure you are well.”
The ladies went to the drawing room, and the Duchess rang for tea.
“I heard the ball was a splendid success, Dowager Countess.” What the Duchess really wanted to know was how her sister-in-law, Lady Georgiana, had fared with the Dowager Countess’ son. But she could not ask the question outright.
“Oh, yes. We had four-and-forty guests, apart from our own family. Everyone said the flowers and the music were delightful….” In asserting this, the Dowager Countess looked a little timid. It was well known that she dreaded having to plan large social gatherings, and she drove her family and servants quite distracted as a result.
Although there was no reason for her anxiety. Hardingham Manor was a beautiful setting, and a household well run by its staff. Things would run as smoothly—perhaps even more so—if the rather silly old Dowager Countess left for the Dower House on the edge of the property.
It was a perfect place for a new, well-born daughter-in-law to claim as her own. No wonder the Earl was pursued by so many!
“Did the Earl enjoy the festivities, My Lady? I know he is frequently away on parliamentary affairs. It must have been nice to have him home to act as host.”
“I think so…he danced with every young lady….”
“I know that my sister-in-law, Lady Georgiana, had a lovely time.”
“Yes, she and Her Grace, your Lady Mother-in-law, sent me the kindest notes upon their return home, saying just that.”
The two ladies sat in silence for a few moments. The Duchess had almost given up on prying any information out of the older lady, when the Dowager Countess blurted out, “They looked so lovely together, my son and Lady Georgiana! How I wish we could bring a match about!”
Just as the Dowager Countess offered this startling but very promising confidence, there was a hubbub at the drawing room door. The Duchess’ eldest child, Lord William, a strapping lad of seven years, ran into the room and hurtled himself into his mother’s arms.
“Theo took my wooden sword, Mama, and he won’t give it back!”
At this, another boy, plump and fair, came running in. He was sobbing as he ran. “Willie is so mean, Mama! He won’t share with me!” The younger child thrust his thumb into his mouth to stop his own crying, as he, too, tried to climb on his mother’s lap.
The Duchess was livid with embarrassment and anger.
“Theodore, stop pawing me, your hands have not been washed. William—where is Miss Abigail, and why is she not supervising you properly?”
“Miss Abigail. I have told you, you are not to call her ‘aunt,” the Duchess hissed under her breath.
“Miss Abigail had a migraine, Mama. She asked us to play quietly in the schoolroom while she closed her eyes for a few minutes.”
“So Miss Abigail is napping in the schoolroom.”
“And you are in the drawing room, tormenting me and showing disrespect to Her Ladyship.”
“Yes, Mama.” This response Lord William delivered with the hint of a smirk.
“Miss Abigail shall hear about this, I assure you.”
“Please, Mama, don’t be angry at Aunt—at Miss Abigail. She’s ever so nice, Mama,” said little Lord Theodore.
At this, the Duchess’ mouth set in an even thinner line. She rang a small silver bell. To the footman who answered, she said, “Take Lord William and Lord Theodore back to the schoolroom, please. Make sure Miss Abigail is alert and attending to them. And tell Miss Abigail I will see her here in the drawing room as soon as Her Ladyship takes her leave.”
To the boys, she said, “Very well then. Trouble over. Be good, now, and stand and make your bows to the Dowager Countess. Then back to the schoolroom.”
“Good day, My Lady,” said Lord William, making a graceful bow. Little Lord Theodore bowed as well, charmingly, if a little more awkwardly.
“Forgive me, My Lady. What a fuss! Just as we were having such a good chat.”
“Oh, no apologies needed! Remember I raised a lively boy of my own!”
“Of course…but the Earl is such a model of rectitude as a man! I cannot imagine him ever giving you trouble as a child.”
“Oh, he was a good boy, that is true, and with a heart of gold, then and now. But all energetic boys need a firm hand now and again. Thankfully, my late husband the Earl was a good father, and I could leave discipline to him. I could just sit back and enjoy Matthew’s sweet nature!”
“My sister-in-law, Lady Georgiana, has a truly sweet nature as well….”
“Then that is another reason they would be compatible, I think,” ventured the Dowager Countess.
“It certainly would unite two of Cambridgeshire’s oldest families,” said the Duchess noncommittally.
“Does Lady Georgiana have any regard for my son, do you think? I know I should not ask, but I would not want to urge a course of action unless there were interest on both sides….”
It was well known within her immediate family that Lady Georgiana would give her eye teeth, not to mention every bone in her lazy, spoiled body, to catch the Earl of Hardingham. Particularly given some of the personal mistakes she had made, which, thank heaven, were not yet generally known to Society.
“Who can see into the heart of another, My Lady? Yet whenever I have heard my sister-in-law speak of the Earl, it has been with great respect.
“But what of the Earl, My Lady? No one knows a man like his mother does. Do you sense any fondness on his side?”
“I cannot say. He danced three times with Lady Georgiana at the ball, which gives me hope. Yet when I speak to him of his duty to marry soon, he seems to have little interest in entering into that happy estate with any young lady.
“We women must privately work together on this, my dear Duchess! Men are too foolish to know what is good for them, sometimes. We must try our best to bring these two young people together.”
Abigail found herself trembling as she approached the drawing room.
She wondered why she should be afraid of the Duchess. After all, they were sisters.
But Abigail knew that wasn’t so. Even though His Grace the Duke was quite kind to the two younger Misses Hill—his own sisters-in-law, after all—and even though the servants would gladly have followed the Duke’s example, the Duchess made it clear that she did not want Abigail and Diana treated as family.
“They are your sisters, my dear,” Abigail had once, years ago, heard the Duke chide the Duchess in his mildest tone of voice. “They should dine at table with us—they should join us in social entertainments.”
Abigail had listened miserably while she was discussed. The speakers had no apparent regard for the fact that she was obviously within earshot.
“No.” The Duchess was quite firm on the subject. “Duke, I brought you very little but myself when we married—”
“—and that, in itself, my dear, was all I wanted—”
“—but I never expected that my Lord Father would die, or that my Lady Mother and two useless sisters would then be thrust penniless upon your generosity. I told you then, and I tell you now, that I will not have it. They will work for their keep here, and they will maintain a discreet distance from your noble acquaintances.”
“My darling Caroline, I am a fortunate man. I have a beautiful wife, and I have more gold than I can count. Your Lady Mother and your sisters could never be a burden upon me. Let Miss Abigail and Miss Diana be raised alongside our own little children, as if they were the boys’ dear older sisters.”
“No. They are not the equal of our little lords, and they will not be brought up with expectations of ever becoming so. I will not have it.”
Abigail had walked away, crying quietly, after overhearing that conversation.
The Dowager Viscountess Murton lived little more than a year after leaving the burnt-out ruins of her own home for that of her eldest daughter, the Duchess. Abigail knew that she grieved for her late husband; she grieved for her old friends and her old life.
The older woman was isolated once she moved to Aspreydale Haven. The Duchess instructed her mother to withdraw to her room and take her meals there with only her younger daughters. But most mealtimes, the younger girls were kept occupied with servile tasks, so the Dowager Viscountess ate alone.
It took months for Abigail to realize that her mother was gradually refusing food. Melancholy and alone, the Dowager Viscountess went into a decline. She died one rainy evening in her daughter’s lavish ducal manor, with no one by her side. Her death was barely noted by Society.
Abigail vowed she would never forget her—would never accept a single act of kindness from her cruel older sister. But she need not have worried. Acts of kindness from the Duchess were few and far between.
All that carried Abigail through those sad days were her monthly letters to and from her dearest old friend, Evelina. She poured out every detail of her mother’s solitary death, without benefit of physician, parson, or friend. Her tears stained the paper and blurred the ink.
Given that she had only a single candle per month for her own use—just like every other household servant—Abigail collected drippings of tallow and dead candle ends and melted them together to make a light by which she could write at night. Paper and ink, too, could be purloined a few sheets at a time from the writing tables placed here and there in guest rooms. Little Diana learned to sleep without stirring in the small upstairs chamber the girls shared, while her sister wrote page after page to her friend. It was her only release from a seemingly impossible life.
The girls had devised a system. The Great North Road was a well-traveled highway running all the way from London to Scotland. As it passed through Cambridgeshire, at a point about equidistant between Aspreydale Haven and Perlington Hall, there sat an enormous old oak tree, impossible to miss.
In front of the tree was a large rock, seemingly rooted in that spot as long as the tree had been. There was a cleft in that rock—a natural pocket that centuries of rain and wind had carved there. In that cleft, the girls would leave their letters for each other.
Evelina’s trusty maid, Sally Stewart, would place a letter there on or near the first of every month, and she would pick up any note she might find waiting. On or around the fifteenth of each month, Abigail would send a letter of her own. She could count on assistance from old Eddie, a groom at Aspreydale Haven who had been kind to her late mother. Eddie would bring back any letter from Evelina.
This secret system had worked like clockwork for nearly four years. Now, as Abigail knocked on the drawing room door, all that sustained her was the thought that whatever happened, she could write about it to Evelina later tonight.
“Come in,” the Duchess answered sharply in response to Abigail’s knock.
Long gone were the days when Abigail would run to her older sister for an embrace. She curtseyed deeply, like a proper housemaid. “Your Grace summoned me?”
“I certainly did. What was the meaning of your napping on the job this afternoon—letting Lord William and Lord Theodore run about my drawing room like little savages? And all in front of the Dowager Countess of Hardingham?”
“Your Grace, I was plagued with a migraine all day. The physician had said I should lie down in a darkened room to ease the symptoms—”
“The physician! La-di-da! I don’t know why I let His Grace convince me to let the family physician examine you. The old herb wife who tends the servants would have been a whole lot more honest about you. We both know, Abigail, these migraines are but a dramatic bid for attention, and a ruse to get out of work.”
“I work hard, Your Grace—”
“I see no evidence of that. You shirk your responsibilities whenever you can. Why, you should be glad you are working in your sister’s noble household, for any proper employer would have dismissed you without a reference on any one of twenty occasions before now.”
“If I had a proper employer—” Abigail bit her lip to stop her own harsh words from emerging.
“Yes? Yes? What? Go on—say what you were about to say. I order you to do so.”
“Your Grace, if I worked for a proper employer, even at the humblest tasks, I would be paid a wage. I would have days off. I could give notice and go elsewhere if I felt I was not respected in my current situation.”
“You are being paid a wage, my dear. It comes to you in the form of Diana’s own room and board, since she is too little to be of any use about the house.
“But if you wish to go and find work elsewhere, Abigail, certainly, be my guest. There will be no reference from me since, as you point out, I am not a ‘proper employer.’ See how you do out there, looking for unskilled work, with no friends, connections, or good character. You’ll be in the gutter fast enough.
“And keep in mind that if you leave, you take Diana with you. If I’m finally rid of one brat, I’d just as soon be rid of both.
“Think it over, my dear. You may give me your decision at any time.”
One final unpleasant task, the Duchess thought to herself, and then I am done for the day.
She worked so hard in the interests of this household—yet it seemed her husband had no idea. Now she had the burden of matchmaking for that spoiled Lady Georgiana, when even her noble brother and mother could not bring the young lady to heel.
The Duchess knocked lightly on Lady Georgiana’s bedroom door. Her sister-in-law was changing for dinner. Her Grace shooed the lady’s maid out with a gesture of her hand, so they could speak more freely.
“The Dowager Countess of Hardingham stopped by today for tea,” the Duchess began.
“And what did that silly goose want?” asked Lady Georgiana.
“My dear, you should not speak about her in that manner—she may well end up your future mother-in-law.”
“I rather doubt it. Oh, I know His Grace my brother wants the match, as do you, but—”
“But what? Do you find him unappealing? He is considered quite the match, in person as well as in fortune.”
“He certainly is all that. Very manly and handsome, most presentable—and from a venerable old family with plenty of money. And I did try, Duchess, to entice him. He seemed charmed, at first. But then, when we talked a while, he seemed to shut down on me, like a candle being snuffed out. No, it’s hopeless—the interest isn’t there.”
“His mother seemed to think it would be an ideal match. In fact, she said that quite bluntly to me today. She said it was up to the women of both families to make it happen.”
“Really.” There was a renewed warmth and sparkle in Lady Georgiana’s icy-blue eyes.
“Yes. But really, Lady Georgiana, we must work quickly. There’s talk among the haut ton about you, my dear, as well you know. Your involvement with the Prince of Wales’s fast circle, your debts at cards—even a hint that you were caught cheating at cards. Although His Grace your brother would certainly call out any man who dares to accuse you openly.
“The talk appears not to have reached Cambridgeshire, but it’s only a matter of time.”
“The men flirt and run up card debts—and, yes, even cheat—all the time,” said Lady Georgiana. “Why should I care?”
“Because you are the daughter and sister of Dukes. Because anything wrong that you do besmirches their names as well—not to mention that of my child, the next Duke.”
Lady Georgiana yawned languidly, like a lazy cat. “Oh, very well. What are you proposing, Duchess?”
“Another ball. Here at Aspreydale Haven. As soon as possible after my new baby is born.
“And Lady Georgiana? Think of it as a second chance.”
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