About the book
Even in her absence he saw her, sparkling like a diamond in the stars.
Born and raised in an orphanage, Miss Meredith Meyer has mixed feelings when the time comes to leave. Selected for the position of a governess, she is certain she will dread every minute of it. Until the moment she meets her dashing employer.
Anthony Ambrose, the Duke of Sherriden, never knew that trying to raise his sister on his own would be such a daunting task. Desperate to do right by her, he hires a governess. What he never accounted for was the way her warm presence quickly melted his icy exterior.
Until the residents of the manor start dropping like flies, victims to a mysterious illness. The glint of a blade is all Meredith sees before she succumbs to darkness. She’s falling into a deep sleep she might never wake up from, and Anthony must fight a monster created specifically for him.
“Oh, Arthur, do behave! We’ve only a few minutes until Ma’am Tabitha calls everyone for supper. You must endeavor to be at least somewhat presentable by then.” Meredith was tightly clutching a small, rather faded shirt as she attempted to persuade the boy to put it on. She and Arthur had to go through this routine chase on an almost nightly basis. For whatever reason, he seemed strongly opposed to clean shirts.
“But Meredith, you know how much I dislike that shirt! I want to wear the red one!” he cried out in defiance, standing atop one of the several beds in the room.
With her hands on her hips, Meredith said matter-of-factly, “Well, Tommy is wearing it tonight. Perhaps if you had come in from the yard sooner, you would have been able to claim it for yourself. Now I’m afraid that either you wear this or be content with no supper at all.” She held up the shirt with both hands as a sort of present for him as he considered his limited options.
Needless to say, he gave in. He begrudgingly stood still as Meredith draped the shirt over his head and pulled his arms through the holes one by one. She smiled softly as she quietly examined his wrathful demeanor. It had been the same argument with the same ending every day for days now, perhaps even weeks. Or was it months? Indeed, it was hard to keep track of time within the orphanage. Every day was filled with noise and rowdiness unrivaled by even the busiest of marketplaces.
Every day, Meredith looked after, taught, soothed, dressed, and patched up each of the little ones. However, she did not perceive this as a burden. Rather, she believed it to be her duty to care for each of these children as delicately as possible so as to provide them with a higher chance of getting adopted. Meredith herself was also an orphan. But, alas, at twenty years old, it was much too late for her to be adopted now. Oh, how she used to dream of what her adopted parents would have looked like!
She often imagined her new father would have been a tall, confident man with a pipe in his mouth and a newspaper tucked under his left arm. She dreamed he would be the sort of educated man with a vast collection of books and artifacts, which he would then proceed to share with Meredith.
And on his other arm, he would have a beautiful, kind, and equally knowledgeable wife. Meredith used to dream that they would both have red hair, just like her. She always stood out in the orphanage because of it, but perhaps if her adoptive parents had the same feature, it would help her feel less out of place.
Ah well, nothing to be done about it now. I grew up pleasantly enough under Ma’am Tabitha’s care.
Her new mission was to help as many of the little ones get adopted as possible, including the spirited troublemakers like Arthur.
“There! What a fine young lad! And most deserving of a scrumptious supper.” She put the comb down on the dresser and straightened the collar of his shirt. He squinted first at his own reflection, then at her. He tried to seem displeased with his new appearance, but could only accomplish a half-frown, half-smile. He settled instead for sticking his tongue out at her through the mirror, and she promptly returned the gesture.
They were interrupted by the sound of Ma’am Tabitha ringing the bell. At last, suppertime!
One would think that a dining table filled with children would be a most raucous affair. But not so under the diligent supervision of Ma’am Tabitha, who endeavored to instill the values of discipline and dignity in all of the children under her care. Everyone chatted away in a most behaved manner, knowing full well that any causers of mischief would be heartlessly sent to bed with empty stomachs and caned hands.
Each of them politely waited their turn as Meredith carefully ladled stew into each of their bowls while Ma’am Tabitha did the same starting at the opposite end of the table.
Times were tough at the moment. The last successful adoption was several months ago, towards the end of Autumn. It was now the beginning of Spring, and donations had been scarce and far between for several months. There were currently six-and-twenty children in the home, ranging from roughly two up to ten-and-two years of age. Ma’am Tabitha did not allow herself to dwell on the home’s woeful plight for too long. After all, there were more important things at hand.
Indeed, there is always more washing and sweeping and scrubbing and cooking and folding and putting away and—
The sound of a crash made her jump. It had come from the other side of the table. A cup was now lying shattered on the wooden floor. All of the children had fallen silent and had their eyes nervously fixed on her. No one dared to move a muscle. With a sigh, Ma’am Tabitha put down the pot of stew she was carrying and finally spoke.
“Naturally, I did not see what happened for I was preoccupied with the stew,” she gestured plainly to the pot that she had set down, “So, who did it?” After receiving no answer, she simply asked, “Meredith? Did you see what happened?”
Instantly, all eyes and heads turned from facing Ma’am Tabitha—who was stationed at one end of the table—to Meredith, the only person in the room who had the courage to meet Ma’am Tabitha’s gaze at the moment.
Meredith responded, “Oh, I am so very sorry, Ma’am Tabitha. I was careless and knocked the cup off the table with my elbow as I turned around to—” Suddenly realizing that elaborating on these details would be of no use, she lowered her head and quietly said, “Nevertheless, I am deeply sorry.”
Unfazed by this display of sorrow and remorse, Ma’am Tabitha simply picked up her pot of stew and resumed her ladling, “See me after supper, Meredith, dear.” With three short, fervent nods, Meredith confirmed this impromptu appointment and turned to fetch the broom.
“No, no. Carry on with what you were doing. Joyce can take care of that for us. Joyce?” Tabitha called out loudly to the other room, “A cup has been broken. Could you please fetch the broom and dustpan?”
A muffled, “Right away, Ma’am,” was heard from the drawing room. And as Joyce swept up the broken pieces and wiped up the spilt water the children slowly, hesitantly, started to move and talk again. One by one, they finished their meals and promptly made their way up the steps to prepare for bed. After clearing the table, Meredith and Joyce accompanied the younger children upstairs to help them all settle in.
In the meantime, Ma’am Tabitha took care of the dishes and performed a final sweep. She could feel her knees creak as she finally sat down on the dusty, faded armchair in the parlor. It faced the fireplace, but it was too warm for a fire now. The only light in the room came from a single oil lamp on the tea table next to her. And once more, she sighed. She found herself sighing more often as of late. There were, of course, valid reasons for doing so. But one reason in particular had grieved her more than the rest. She had kept it to herself for a while now.
I had hoped that if I did not speak it out loud, it would have gone away. Alas, this reason has persisted. And I must now face it head on.
Meredith gently cleared her throat to make her presence known. She immediately followed it up with, “I’m here, Ma’am.”
“Have a seat, dear.” Ma’am Tabitha gestured to the other faded armchair across from her and handed Meredith a cup as she sat down. “Mrs. Hatcher was kind enough to give us a pouch of tea leaves. I’ve made you a cup, it’s lovely stuff. And I’ve saved a bit for Joyce, as well. Is she nearly finished upstairs?”
Meredith swallowed her sip of tea before responding, “Almost, Ma’am. The youngest ones are already asleep. But some of the older children begged her to read them a story.” Ma’am Tabitha’s expression immediately brightened. Almost 15 or so years ago, the owner of a bookshop several lanes down passed away in his sleep. He had no family or next of kin to pass the shop and its contents onto. The only wish stated in his will was for the books—which he considered his most prized possessions—and all of his other belongings to be divvied up between various charities and orphanages within the district. This was to be his final contribution to society.
Meredith still remembered how the entire home was abuzz with excitement and wonder as Ma’am Tabitha, aided by two young men, brought in box after box of books and clothes. These wonderful gifts put everyone in a jolly mood all week. Meredith was unable to read at the time, so she relied on Ma’am Tabitha and some of the older children to read to her. It was, indeed, a most glorious day.
Furthermore, most, if not all, of those same books continued to delight the children down to this day. Ma’am Tabitha made it perfectly clear that as these books were to be shared amongst everyone, it was then everyone’s duty to care for them. This resulted in the instillation of a love for books in all of the children within the home.
Presently, Meredith broke the silence, “Ma’am, about the cup, I—”
With a quick, unconcerned wave, Ma’am Tabitha dismissed the thought entirely, “Oh, dearest. Never you mind about the cup. What’s done is done. These sorts of things are quite inevitable. So say no more about it. In truth, I asked to see you because I have some news.”
Visibly relieved, Meredith simply replied, “Yes, thank you, Ma’am.” But she began to feel uneasy again as she observed Ma’am Tabitha’s expression. “I hope I am not prying, Ma’am, but is everything all right? Is the news unfortunate? You seem concerned.”
Ma’am Tabitha set her cup down and met her gaze. Meredith could now see that she had tears in her eyes. “Come here to me, dear, won’t you?”
At once, Meredith set down her own cup on the tea table and knelt by Ma’am Tabitha’s chair. Ma’am Tabitha took both of Meredith’s hands in her own, and gently stroking them said, “Dear, I have the most wonderful news. But before I disclose it, I just want you to know that I truly am overjoyed for you. It’s just—I have such conflicted feelings at present, for I have always cherished and fondly thought of you as my own daughter. You know this, don’t you?”
Wiping away her own tears with the back of her hand, Meredith just managed to affirm, “Yes, Ma’am. I do know. Yes, I do.” Smiling through her tears, Ma’am Tabitha braced herself and continued, “Very well. The news is that about two days ago, a well-dressed man dropped by while you were at the market. He had come from His Grace, the Duke of Sherriden. He lives— Have you seen that beautiful estate towards the outskirts of town?
With widened eyes, Meredith slowly nodded. Ma’am Tabitha continued, “Yes, there. That grand estate is the home of the Duke of Sherriden and his family, who are currently looking for a governess for their youngest child…” After a brief pause, Ma’am Tabitha said in a soft, measured tone, “And I recommended you for the post. So the man will return on Sunday to collect you and your things.”
Speechless, Meredith could only blink as she let this news wash over her. She always knew she was going to leave the orphanage so that she could see the world someday, somehow. But she did not expect it to happen so soon. After a silence that seemed to last an eternity, she shook her head and spoke, “But, Ma’am, what about you? What about—”
Ma’am Tabitha cut her short with another dismissive wave. “Nonsense! Why, you of all people should know that I could lift and wash and cook ten times faster than you and Joyce put together! I have been matron and keeper of this home for almost thirty years now. This, my dear, is my element.”
She gently lifted Meredith’s face and wiped away her tears with a thumb. “But you, child, must do as I say. I could think of no other young woman more capable or eligible for this post than yourself. You have nearly memorized all of the books here, and you have such a way with children.”
“Oh, Ma’am. I couldn’t possibly bear to leave the children!” exclaimed Meredith.
Holding her hands again, Ma’am Tabitha admitted, “And I’m sure it will pain them just as much to see you go. But this is by no means the first time they have had to say goodbye, nor will it be their last. They’ll have each other, myself, and Joyce to soothe them. We’ll see to their hearts in the same way that you comforted them when sweet little Ruth got adopted last Autumn. You have devoted yourself to this home for long enough, and this is your overdue compensation.”
As Meredith came up the stairs, she found Joyce sweeping the hallway. They acknowledged each other with friendly smiles. Joyce then informed her that all of the children were happily tucked in, except for Arthur, who was in bed sulking and crying but refusing to reveal why. Shaking her head, Meredith promised to check up on him.
As she pushed open the door, she could hear restrained sniffles coming from the bed at the farthest corner. The poor lad was curled up under the covers, facing away from the door. She tiptoed her way and gently sat down on his bed. Softly she whispered, “Arthur, it’s me.” Immediately he rolled around to face her, his red eyes and puffy cheeks peeking out from under the covers.
Trembling, he whispered back, “Did she scold you severely, Mere? Did she cane your hands?”
With a light chuckle, Meredith reassured him, “No, no, dear. Nothing like that. Besides, I’m far too old for her to cane.”
Arthur’s entire body heaved a sigh of relief, after which he quietly endeavored to make his case, “It was an accident, Mere! I hadn’t realized the cup was so close to the edge and I knocked it over with my elbow as I—”
“As you lifted your arm to drink your soup. I know, dear. It’s fine now. But do be more mindful of your surroundings from now on, all right?”
Nodding his head so hard that the bed creaked, Arthur whispered back, “Yes, Mere. I will. I promise! It won’t happen again.”
He dried his eyes with the sheets, and wished her good night. Unbeknownst to him, tomorrow’s announcement was going to bring more tears than a broken cup ever could.
“Lady Cecilia, I am afraid that I must protest, madam. His Grace is currently preoccupied with matters of great importance and has given strict orders to not be disturbed under any—”
This muffled but sudden disruption jolted Anthony Ambrose, the Duke of Sherriden, and caused him to shift his attention from the neatly stacked piles of paperwork on his desk to the mahogany door of his study. From its other side, he could hear Cecilia calmly interrupt the agitated housekeeper, “And do tell, Mrs. Oakley, precisely what matters could be of greater importance than I, his sister?”
After a brief silence, the study door swung open to reveal Lady Cecilia Ambrose, wearing a light blue morning dress, a hue which perfectly complemented her straight blonde hair, green eyes, and pale complexion. Even at the tender age of 10, Cecilia’s petite frame embodied the cold, aristocratic demeanor found amongst all members of upper class society. With her head held high, she floated into the study with Mrs. Oakley sheepishly trailing behind her.
“Your Grace, my most sincere apologies. But Lady Cecilia wished to discuss the matter of her new governess.”
Hearing this, the Duke put down his quill, sat upright, and folded both hands on the desk. He offered a polite, but awkward smile, and simply said, “I see. Is something on your mind, Cecilia?”
Instead of returning his smile, she lifted her chin even higher and said, “Yes, Brother. Mrs. Oakley has just now informed me that I will be placed under the care of a new governess. But I already have several expert tutors, so why would I need a governess also? Is she to manage me as though I were a baby?”
The Duke acknowledged her questions with a grunt and responded matter-of-factly, “Of course not, Cecilia. But I do believe a governess’ company and insight would be quite beneficial for you, especially given the… current situation.” These words produced the opposite effect of what Anthony was hoping for, and a mix of emotions swept over the little girl’s face, but she held her tongue.
At last, she spoke, “Mother has— has—” her eyes started to well up, “Our mother has died and that is all you have to say?”
Well, even if he did have anything else to say, she didn’t wait around to hear it. She promptly turned around and made her way out the door. And after taking her leave, Mrs. Oakley did the same. Rather than immediately resume his paperwork, Anthony crossed the room to the window overlooking the front garden.
He was a man of few words, but of many thoughts. As he surveyed the freshly trimmed hedges and neat flower arrangements, he reflected on Cecilia’s words. They had never been close, the age difference made it far too difficult for that. Their father had died while Cecilia was barely a year old and Anthony was away at university.
So the only real connection they had shared was their mother. And even that was now gone. As he returned to his paperwork, his final thought on the issue was, “A governess will know what to do with her.”
Meredith’s heart seemed to be beating at an unbearable rate and volume. Her heartbeat drowned out all of the other sounds of Spring and life around her. Whether it was the birds singing in the trees or the sound of the horses’ hooves as they drew the coach closer and closer to the Ambrose Estate, Meredith could not seem to hear any of it.
Today had been a difficult morning, to say the least. Breakfast was unusually quiet and quick, for none of the children seemed too hungry. And despite her assurances to visit as often as she could, Meredith could not restrain anyone’s tears, least of all her own. The driver of the coach was touched by this tragic scene and attempted to console everyone by announcing to all present that according to the terms set by His Grace, The Duke himself, Meredith was to have a day off each Sunday.
Alas, this noble attempt to soothe the children produced almost no effect on them. But finally, after a seemingly endless stream of hugs, kisses, farewells, and promises, Meredith waved a final goodbye to everyone as she walked down the worn paved path towards the waiting coach. And everyone, or rather, almost everyone waved back. A small boy, who was strongly opposed to clean shirts, had refused to come down for breakfast and for the send-off. Meredith caught a glimpse of him standing in an upstairs bedroom window, watching her make her way to the coach.
She waved up at him, but he just stood there. This further pained her already breaking heart. But then at the last second, he stuck his tongue out at her and shook his head. Her heart soared. This final gesture renewed her strength and propelled her forward into the coach and consequently, into a new world.
After she had climbed in, the driver shut the coach door. They had not exchanged any words since leaving the orphanage. But Meredith remembered that he had introduced himself as Mr. Roger Young. He was a very kindhearted man who said he had two sons of his own.
I wonder if the other staff are as kind as Mr. Young.
One thing Meredith especially liked about Mr. Young was how, even in the absence of his employers, he always seemed ready for any new commands. Meredith decided that she would adopt a similar manner. She was determined to fulfill her new duties to the best of her abilities.
After all, I didn’t break all those hearts and make all those promises for nothing.
As a footman helped her step out of the coach, Meredith immediately felt dwarfed by the enormousness of the house and grounds.
She climbed up the stairs where a tall man in a black tail-coat and trousers stood waiting for her. “Welcome to Ambrose Estate, Miss Meyer,” he said. “My name is Mr. Hugh Fletcher, the butler and head of staff. I had the great pleasure of meeting Miss Tabitha Moore last week; she spoke very highly of you.”
So this was the man Ma’am Tabitha had met the other day. Mr. Fletcher had short grey hair that was neatly combed back in an old-fashioned, dignified style. And everything he said and did was done so with an air of solemn dignity.
Presently, he explained, “Mrs. Oakley will show you to your room. After you have freshened up, I shall fetch you to present you to His Grace and Lady Cecilia.”
The footman handed her bags to a maid, who then swiftly disappeared into the house, while Mrs. Oakley introduced herself and instructed Meredith to follow her. She led Meredith past the tall, white fluted columns and the embellished front doors into the marble-floored entrance hall.
And no matter where Meredith looked, whether it was the impressive statues of the lions “guarding” the polished staircase, or the paintings on the walls, or the immense chandelier looming high above, it all indicated the level of wealth and the sophisticated quality of life that the Ambrose family enjoyed.
Now while these expensive possessions and trimmings of refined living undoubtedly brought joy to their possessors, they gradually began to stir within Meredith a quiet, but intense loathing. She reasoned that the money spent on the extravagant furnishings of this entrance hall alone would have been more than enough to feed and clothe all of the children back at the orphanage for many years to come.
Why, I feel certain that such a gross sum of money could send many of the boys to reputable schools and universities.
Many similar trains of thought passed through Meredith’s mind as Mrs. Oakley led her up the wide staircase, down another lengthy hallway, into a quaintly-furnished bedroom.
Mrs. Oakley pointed towards the modest navy blue gown laid out on the bed and explained, “His Grace has made arrangements for new gowns. He wishes for you to be comfortable and alert while performing your duties, especially considering that this is an exceptionally sensitive time for Lady Cecilia.”
Mrs. Oakley then reminded Meredith that she would be taken to meet His Grace and Lady Cecilia as soon as she was dressed and ready, and then left her alone. Meredith had never had a bedroom all to herself before and it all felt a bit dreamlike. After she had washed, donned her new gown, and pinned her hair into a simple low chignon, Meredith was finally free to explore her new quarters. Although her room was by no means as extravagant or showy as the rest of the house, it was quite adequate for a young governess.
She was delighted to find that she even had her own writing desk. She pulled open the top drawer to see if it had any paper. Yes! And it was scented, too. Next, Meredith inspected the wardrobe. She gasped at the gowns left for her. The styles were quite simple and modest. But a closer look revealed that the material for each of the gowns was delicately woven with high quality threads.
How generous of my new employers!
With childish glee she sat on the chaise lounge placed next to the window and gazed at the eastern-side garden.
What a view! And what a beautiful day, too!
She hoped the children were making the most of this glorious weather, and she wondered how they were getting on back home. Home? This was her home now. Again, she reminded herself of her resolution. She was going to carry out her work dutifully. Her conscience obliged her to do her best.
Mr. Fletcher opened the door and led the way, “Your Grace, allow me to present Miss Meyer, Lady Cecilia’s new governess.” Nervously, Meredith stepped into the spacious, well-lit drawing room. The Duke and Lady Cecilia rose to greet her.
Meredith—who was expecting the Duke to be Lady Cecilia’s father, not her brother—was suddenly acutely aware of her posture and her manner of walking. Even young Lady Cecilia seemed to walk with more grace and elegance, and she did so effortlessly.
Meeting each other in the middle of the room, the Duke gave a polite bow and spoke first, “Miss Meyer, it is a pleasure to meet you. Fletcher says that you come to us highly recommended. We are honored. Allow me to introduce my sister, Lady Cecilia.”
Meredith was starting to get tired of feeling so small. First, the giant house with its giant grounds made her feel puny. And then the same thing happened as she regarded the high ceilings and extravagant furnishings. And she felt small even now standing in front of the Duke, who was himself tall and broad-shouldered.
But Meredith regained at least some of her confidence looking at Lady Cecilia’s petite and delicate frame. “Welcome, Miss Meyer.” she quietly said, with a quick and simple curtsy.
With all of the strength she could muster, Meredith replied, “Your Grace, thank you very much for the generosity and kindness you have shown to me thus far. I feel very welcome.” Turning to Lady Cecilia, she continued, “It is so wonderful to have finally met you, Lady Cecilia. I look forward to our lessons.” The little girl gave a polite, but somewhat insincere smile. She was clearly feeling just as apprehensive as Meredith herself.
With the introductions done, the Duke immediately got down to business. “Indeed. Speaking of lessons, I was hoping we could clarify some points of note. If you’ll both please join me in the library…”
He led them out of the drawing room, across the hallway, and into the breathtaking family library. Like every other room Meredith had been to, it had several tall windows, which allowed for the sunlight to paint the room in such a delightful way. The bookshelves extended from the floor to the ceiling, covering the walls completely, while carefully styled flower arrangements filled the room with a pleasant fragrance.
To Meredith, it was heaven on earth. The Duke stopped in front of the bookshelves on the left wall of the room and explained, “These books are to do with history and geography. Those are the subjects we would like you to focus on with Cecilia, in addition to being in charge of her overall development, of course. I’ve been told that she already has separate tutors for French, deportment, embroidery, singing, and painting. So there is no need to concern yourself with any of that. Although, I’m not quite sure of the exact schedule of those lessons. Cecilia?”
After sucking in a deep breath, Cecilia answered, “Deportment is 10 o’clock every Monday. Singing is at 11 o’clock every Tuesday. French is at 2 o’clock every Wednesday. Embroidery is at 10 o’clock every Thursday. And painting is at 11 o’clock every Friday.”
With a simple nod, the Duke acknowledged this and turned his attention once more to Meredith.
“There we are then. Naturally, you will have to schedule your own lessons around those. I wouldn’t dare tell you how to do your work, Miss Meyer, but please feel free to consult these books. You may use the schoolroom upstairs or this library to host your lessons. However, please be mindful of the fact that my own office is adjacent to this room.” Meredith acknowledged all of this and reassured the Duke that they would do their utmost to not disturb him.
Satisfied with her answer, the Duke decided to bring their meeting to a close.
“Splendid! Well, I do believe that is all. Please take your time settling in today, your first lesson is not until tomorrow morning. Or rather, tomorrow afternoon, perhaps? Pardon, what time did you say you had painting lessons, Cecilia?”
Meredith noticed Lady Cecilia’s aristocratic charm slip ever so slightly as she very subtly narrowed her eyes at her older brother. Perhaps Lady Cecilia believed the Duke hadn’t really paid attention to her as she listed her lessons. Her words were perfectly civil, but her tone was unbearably cold, “Pardon me, Brother. Tomorrow is Monday, so I have a deportment lesson with Mrs. Ramsbury.”
A knock on the door caught everyone’s attention.
Fletcher entered and said, “Excuse me, Your Grace. I do apologize for the interruption, but Lord Farellshire and Lord Gillianghamshire have arrived. They are seated in the drawing room awaiting you.”
Seeming very surprised to hear this, the Duke replied, “Very good, Fletcher. Have them wait in my study, please. I will be with them shortly.”
And thus concluded Meredith’s first meeting with her new employer. The Duke took his leave after welcoming Meredith one last time. And Lady Cecilia shortly did the same. But she climbed up the stairs—presumably to her own room—rather than follow her brother. This left Meredith standing alone in the library. She selected a few books on Egypt before making her way back to her room. She needed to figure out how to plan her first proper lesson.
She was already vaguely familiar with Egypt and its contributions to world history. But she hoped to do more than simply provide Lady Cecilia with some general information of a country for use in conversation. Rather, Meredith hoped to interest Cecilia in the many larger lessons and truths that are found in historical events and figures, that she could then apply in her own life.
With this noble goal in mind, Meredith sat down at her writing desk and got to work devouring the books. However, her mind kept going back to the eerie coldness with which Lady Cecilia treated her own brother. Initially, Meredith assumed that the formality that the siblings spoke to each other with was because Meredith was present. But could it be that they were just as reserved and frosty with each other even when no one else was around?
What a most peculiar household.
A few minutes later, a young housemaid brought Meredith her luncheon. She saw this as her chance. Just as the maid turned to leave, Meredith asked, “Might I ask what your name is?”
Visibly astonished by Meredith’s sudden personal interest in her, the maid replied, “Philippa, Miss Meyers.”
After a quick glance at the door, Meredith offered, “I’d be happy to split my luncheon with you, Philippa, if you’d care to answer some questions.”
After leaving the library, Anthony arranged with one of the maids for some chocolates and an assortment of fruit to be brought to his study for him, Kenneth, and Colin. A passing glance at the grandfather clock in the entrance hall said it was only half past eleven, far too early for either Kenneth or Colin to even be awake.
Oh, I hope they don’t bring news. Or if they do, may it at least be good news.
He found them in the study, engaged in an enthusiastic debate over which opera they intended to see. They didn’t even acknowledge him as he entered and sat down at his desk. Growing tired of their bickering, Anthony finally cut in to say, “Now, now, that’s quite enough of that. Why don’t you go see both operas on separate nights?” Annoyed at this simple—yet profound—solution, Kenneth immediately changed the focus of the issue.
Turning to Anthony he retorted, “Well, I guess it’s all the same to you, good sir. No matter which operas Colin and I see or where we take supper or where we go drinking, you are never with us. You would rather sit alone locked up with your paperwork than spend an exciting night out with your closest friends.”
Unable to deny this allegation, Anthony returned with, “And precisely what is it that renders your nights more exciting than mine, old boy?” He couldn’t help but smile as he made this remark. He had known Kenneth Jeffries—or as he was known to others, The Earl of Farellshire—since their first day together at Harrowston Academy. So he knew quite well how to get under his skin.
But Kenneth wasn’t taking the bait this time. Instead, he looked to Colin, the eldest in the room by only four months. He, too, went to Harrowston Academy, but Anthony had known him long before that. Their families were close friends, so they had practically been together from the moment they could crawl. To acquaintances, Colin was known as Colin Mortcombe, Baron Gillinghamshire. And like Anthony, Colin too had recently lost his mother.
Lazily stretching his arms as he rose from his chair, Colin declared, “Oh, it’s hopeless, Kenneth. Nothing we say will convince him. Look at the pride with which he sits behind that desk. His Grace revels in the power and wealth of his dukedom. Come now, let us pay deference to him.”
This last sentence was said with a playful bow and impish smile. Almost immediately, Kenneth followed suit. As it turned out, they were also quite capable of getting under Anthony’s skin.
Anthony decided he better change the subject lest his friends end up injuring their backs from their repeated, high-spirited bows. Rather bluntly, he asked, “Oh, quit beating around the bush, you two. Why on earth are you here so early? I’d fully expected both of you to be passed out and hungover at this hour. In fact, why are you here at all?” Hearing this, both friends rushed to straighten their backs at once, very nearly knocking each other over in their haste.
Both men pulled their chairs up to Anthony’s desk. Being the older one, Colin took it upon himself to elaborate, “Truth be told, we came to check up on you, Anthony. We haven’t heard from you at all since the last time we spoke. So we decided to call again, just to be sure you were well.”
Oh, that’s right!
Almost exactly a month ago, Colin and Kenneth called on Anthony. It was a week after his mother had passed away. Like the true friends that they were, they reassured him of their support during the call. And even after they went back to their rooms in town, they often wrote to him to inquire how he was doing. He always intended to reply, but kept putting it off due to other things that required his attention.
And now here they were, calling on him again out of concern. Rather sheepishly, Anthony expressed his appreciation for their fraternal anxiety. He further went on to apologize for worrying them and explained, “Frankly, the adjustment has not been as smooth as I had hoped. With great effort, I was finally able to sort out the paperwork, the property, and what have you. But there’s still the matter of my sister.”
With furrowed brow, Kenneth inquired, “What do you mean? Oh! But of course, the poor child must sorely miss your mother.”
Anthony shrugged, “Yes, that’s what I thought. And, of course, that much I understand. In truth I—” he paused briefly, “I also miss her. But the problem is that I have no idea how to take care of Cecilia or help her move on.”
Insightfully, Kenneth observed, “Understandably, Cecilia’s young mind is struggling to cope with such a traumatic event. And if even she cannot understand or process her own emotions, then how are you supposed to do so?”
Anthony rubbed his temples and exhaled, “That is just the question I’ve been trying to answer for the last month. The only solution I could devise was to hire a governess.”
“Do you mean to say that you have already hired one?” Colin asked, with both eyebrows raised.
“Yes. I sent Fletcher out to recruit a suitable one. In fact, she just arrived this morning. Not at all what I had expected, but I trust Fletcher’s judgment in these matters.”
“Oh? Do you think her to be too old?”
Emphatically shaking his head, Anthony said, “On the contrary, I worry that she is too young. She couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. She had a head of fiery red hair that starkly contrasted her soft-spoken demeanor. Yes, she might be too young and too soft-spoken to act as a stabilizing maternal presence for Cecilia, which was what I was originally hoping for. But Fletcher assures me that she will also be good for her.”
“In that case, consider the matter closed,” smiled Kenneth. “After all, Cecilia now has what she needs. Now it’s time to think about what you require.”
Rolling his eyes, Anthony knew exactly what he was about to say, “Kenny, don’t you start again with that whole marriage business. I need to focus on caring for the estate.”
“But don’t you see? Taking a wife is exactly the best way to care for the estate. It is your moral and social duty to produce an heir. And who knows? Perhaps the dullness of married life will suit you. After all, you take to mundaneness like a moth to a flame.”
Before Anthony could retaliate, Colin butt in, “Leave off him, Kenneth. He’ll settle down when he feels like it, that’s that.”
This was always the way amongst the three friends. Whenever two of them had opposing views, the third would step in either to mediate or to break a tie. The rest of their conversation focused on the stock exchange and similar matters until Mrs. Oakley called them for luncheon.
“And that’s all I know, Miss Meyer. I only started working here last Autumn.”
Meredith thanked Philippa for her help and gave her half of her luncheon as promised. Philippa filled her pockets with the forbidden food and left. Meredith then munched on her remaining sandwiches which, unsurprisingly, tasted absolutely divine. But she could not fully relish any of the good food or the marvelous freshly-squeezed orange juice, for she was distracted by everything she had just learned.
Meredith now had a better understanding of the current situation. The late Duke of Sherriden, Edmund Ambrose—the Duke’s father—passed away roughly nine years ago. But his wife, the Duchess of Sherriden, Theodora Ambrose, passed away only last month. On both occasions, the Duke did not shed a single tear.
Philippa had learned from the other staff that His Grace, Anthony Ambrose, not lived on this estate for many years. He had been sent to a private school at only 8 years of age and even during his university days rarely ever visited. It was only towards the end of last summer—when the late Duchess’ health had begun to fail her—that His Grace officially began living on the estate again.
On these matters, Philippa had shared some of her personal views.
“When I queried Mrs. Oakley about His Grace’s behavior, she said that this was perfectly normal for a member of the Ambrose family, who are renowned for being reserved. But between you and I, Miss Meyer, I thought it quite odd. How can anyone not weep for their own mother?”
That last question sent a shiver down Meredith’s spine. Indeed, Philippa had a point. Meredith did not even remember her own parents, but she still wept for them, whereas the Duke had the privilege to be cared for by his parents, and in an impressive house such as this one, for that matter. And yet, he spared not a single teardrop for either one of them.
“And what about Lady Cecilia?” Meredith had asked.
“Oh, bless her little heart!” Philippa had exclaimed with a hand on her chest. “She takes after her mother, you know. Everyone said that the late Duke was a very cold, distant person. But I tell you, Miss Meyer, I had the privilege of waiting on Her Grace, the late Duchess—and she was a most tender and expressive noblewoman. Lady Cecilia wept uncontrollably when she died.”
According to Philippa, the general impression was that Lady Cecilia—who was far more expressive and emotive than the Duke—had inherited much of the late Duchess’ countenance and charm. However, she had also inherited quite a large portion of her father’s frostiness despite never really knowing him. She was only about a year old when he passed away.
Meredith looked at the stack of history books she had chosen from the library. How could she possibly find any lessons or truths in their pages that would be relevant to Lady Cecilia? Despite only having two living members in this house, the Ambrose family already seemed significantly more complex than it did when Meredith first arrived. Initially, she had hoped to be a guiding influence and a positive role model for the young child.
But now, with a sigh Meredith resignedly thought, “Perhaps I should just stick to teaching general history and geography.”
Anthony and Kenneth were practically bent over double from laughter. They were reminiscing about their days at university and Kenneth had just done his flawless imitation of Professor Scriven’s voice and rigid mannerisms.
“Oh, he hated us so much, do you remember?” Kenneth said in-between breaths as he wiped a tear from his eyes.
“Of course! And the feeling was mutual. Besides, he only picked on us because we were close to Colin,” Anthony said with an eye roll.
Looking at Kenneth’s face, he started to laugh again because in all honesty, they looked quite ridiculous for they had both turned as red as apples and were lounging in his study gasping for breath. Unfortunately, Colin was not present to share in this laughing fit. He had to go home almost immediately after luncheon because of a terrible headache. According to Kenneth, such headaches were becoming quite frequent for Colin, possibly because of their almost nightly drinking bouts back in town.
“Do you remember what Colin did to tick wretched Scriven so?” asked Kenneth with a chuckle.
Furrowing his brows, Anthony replied, “Oddly enough, no. I can’t, for the life of me, seem to recall exactly what had happened for the three us to deserve Professor Scriven’s wrath.”
Kenneth doubled over from laughter again, when he had regained his composure, he said, “But how could you forget? Colin was the first person to prove that Professor Scriven was bald.”
“What? That wasn’t Colin. Everyone suspected Professor Scriven was wearing a wig. It wasn’t the most convincing.”
Shaking his head, Kenneth sat up in his chair, “Yes, we suspected it. Even the upperclassmen did. But Colin was the only one to prove it. It all seems quite petty in hindsight.”
“Yes, but how on earth did he do it? Don’t tell me he snatched the wig right off of the poor professor’s head?”
“Of course not! This is Colin we’re talking about. He likes doing things with a… certain finesse. No, Professor Scriven confronted Colin on one of the school lawns and proceeded to scold him for missing another lecture. Exasperated and vexed, Colin retaliated by pointing at the top of Professor Scriven’s head and exclaiming, ‘Spider, sir! There’s a spider on you! Get it, sir!’”
At this point, Anthony could see another laughing fit on its way by the looks of Kenneth’s face, but Kenneth staved it off for the sake of finishing the story.
“Naturally, the old chap proceeded to yell and slap his own head in a most unhinged manner. He ran in circles while Colin pointed and updated him on the whereabouts of the imaginary spider. It caused quite a commotion, and it culminated with poor Professor Scriven’s wig flying off his head into a nearby bush.”
Unable to control their hilarity any longer, both friends erupted into another laughing fit as they imagined the scene.
But a gentle knock at the door cut their laughter short. Anthony’s expression immediately changed and became totally serious. “Come in.”
It was just Mrs. Oakley with some tea.
After she had left, Kenneth cleared his throat, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, Anthony. But why do you do that?”
“Change the way you behave whenever anyone apart from me or Colin is in the room.”
“It’s a habit, I guess. Mrs. Oakley and Mr. Fletcher have both been with our family for as long as I can remember, but I still feel like I need to maintain distance from them.”
“Well, naturally, of course. You are, after all, the Duke of this estate. Distance is a part of our society, old boy. But what I don’t understand is this: why do you feel the need to hide all of your emotions? Whenever other people are around, be they servants or our peers, your only expression is a measured—dare I say, insincere—half-smile.”
“Yes, I know what you mean. Father was the same way with everyone, even with my mother and I. He always said that expressing emotion involved vulnerability and a man should never be vulnerable.”
“Do you still believe his advice?”
Anthony shrugged, “I believe there is some truth to it. It is a tedious job, however, to constantly guard oneself. Perhaps that is why I would rather stay home. At least I can let my guard down when I’m alone, and when I’m with you and Colin, of course.”
“I see. Well, Colin forgot to mention this, but he and I will be staying at his estate until the Season is over. We’ve temporarily let our town rooms so that we could be within reach just in case you needed anything.”
It took a second for Anthony to process this information. Colin’s estate was very close by, hence why their families were such good friends. But Colin despised life at the estate—he called it monotonous and unbearable and unbearably monotonous.
And that is why after leaving university, he and Kenneth took up bachelor rooms right in the center of town, to be “closer to the action”. Whereas up until last year, Anthony had taken up rooms around the outskirts of town where he could devote most of his time to reading and living quietly.
But now, his friends were willing to give up an entire Season and subject themselves to an unbearably monotonous life as a display of fraternal support for Anthony. As the weight of this gesture sunk in, Anthony felt a lump growing in his throat.
Endeavoring to distract himself from it, he asked Kenneth, “Do you think Colin’s headache has gone away by now?”
“Then we better give him a new one. Come on, Kenny.”
The two friends dashed out of the house yelling a muddle of explanations, but leaving a trail of ever-confused servants in their wake.
“What on earth has gotten into them?” asked Mr. Fletcher as everyone watched the coach drive off.
“I believe,” answered Mrs. Oakley, “His Grace was trying to tell us that he is not going to be home for dinner.”
Several hours later, Fletcher kneeled at the foot of his bed sweating profusely. Never had he—in all his 30 years of serving the Ambrose family—lied so audaciously.
Shall I just confess? Or shall I leave it to chance?
Either way, Fletcher knew the repercussions were going to be life-changing. The only difference was whose life it would change the most. And this was not a matter of negligence. No! He had entangled himself a web of falsehoods.
Would His Grace ever forgive me if he found me out? Oh, what have I done?
He buried his face in his hands. Anxious, afraid, and alone, he said two prayers—one for himself, and one for Lady Cecilia. He lay down and pulled the covers up to his chin. He already knew he wasn’t going to get a wink of sleep tonight.
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