Capturing the Governess's Heart
The trot and clatter of carriages, and the calls of people on the street below, were an unwelcome clamor to Emma. She wondered why they seemed louder, today of all days, and then she heard, or rather felt, the heavy silence of her own home.
The servants barely stirred; they were clustered together in the kitchen, waiting for news of their beloved mistress. Emma’s father and the physician had shut the door of her mother’s sickroom firmly, and she couldn’t hear anything but low murmurs from her perch on the second-story window seat. All she could hear was the rush and chatter of everyday life continuing on below, and the contrast hurt more than her ears.
The busy harbor-town of Whitehaven, England, bustled on through the warm spring weather without a second glance at the serviceable townhome or the wan face at the window. Emma turned from the sights below and clutched a handkerchief close to her heart.
Her mother’s bright sitting room, with its painted silk wallpaper and white crown molding, was full of sunlight, but even it couldn’t fill the emptiness Emma felt. Mrs. Fletcher’s sickness had carved away the long days of happiness and laughter that had filled her daughters’ childhood.
Elizabeth, Emma’s younger sister, hadn’t noticed the absences yet and played with her doll on the sunny, yellow sofa in just the same carefree way as she would on any other day.
Mrs. Fletcher and her daughters had often spent cheerful hours of their mornings in her sitting room, but it had now been a week since she had joined them. The door to the master bedroom remained closed, as their mother’s illness took more and more from her.
“Now, Angela, you should smooth your skirts like this when you sit. Those wrinkles and lumps are quite unsightly,” Elizabeth chided her doll.
Emma’s eyes filled with tears as she looked at her sister. Elizabeth’s doll was a prized possession and companion. Her wooden hands and feet were worn smooth by caresses, and the glossy paint on her face had faded under countless kisses. Mrs. Fletcher indulged eleven-year-old Elizabeth, aged eleven, always making sure the precious doll had beautiful dresses, all embroidered with butterflies. Covered with delicate wings and crowned with a cherubic face, the doll had been called Angel La La for nearly a decade. Now Elizabeth called her by her given name and spoke to the doll of nothing but etiquette, receiving calls, the newest fashions, and balls.
How would Elizabeth ever attend the much-craved-for London Season without a mother to guide her?
Emma stood up and paced across the sitting room to the gilded fireplace. She herself was fifteen and eager to grow into womanhood, but the thought now filled her with fear.
“Miss Fletcher?” The physician’s quiet tone startled Emma, and she could make no response except to turn her reddened eyes towards the dreaded door where he stood. “Your mother would like to see you now. Please come in.”
Elizabeth fell silent and pulled her doll into her lap. “Should I come, Emma?”
“No, love. You stay here. I’m sure Mother is tired and will want to rest when we’re done. I’ll come and tell you everything later.” Emma promised.
How was she going to tell her sister their mother was dying?
The fearsome question turned her feet to lead, but the kindly physician took her arm and guided her into Mrs. Fletcher’s sickroom. Emma blinked fast to fight back her tears and adjust her eyes to the shadowed room. After her mother’s sunny sitting room, the master bedroom was cool and dark.
She paused stiffly near the door and felt as if she were intruding. The master bedroom was a private realm, one of the only rooms Emma and her sister did not frequent. They had the run of the townhome from the basement kitchen to the back gardens, and even the polished and formal front parlor, but their parent’s bedroom was a separate sanctuary Emma now invaded unwillingly.
It was a surprisingly masculine room, with dark-painted walls and heavy curtains. Her father’s dresser and wardrobe were squared and sturdy, and the four-poster bed was imposing. There, the curtains were drawn back, and Mrs. Fletcher’s delicate face was all but lost amongst the white pillows.
“Mr. Fletcher? Your eldest daughter has come.” The physician spoke in a voice that was barely more than a murmur, clearly afraid of startling the man standing by the bed.
“Yes. Yes. Of course.” A shudder ran down Mr. Fletcher’s spine but he did not turn to greet Emma.
Her father was a kind, industrious man, whose head for business had elevated him to the position of a prominent shipping merchant. He was a pillar of Whitehaven, his name well-respected in the harbor, and he’d secured a good living for his family. Unfortunately, it was that very business which had made him a near-stranger to his daughters. He was gone for long hours each day, worked nearly every day of the week, and travelled often.
Now, Mr. Fletcher gave Emma a stiff hug but had no words of comfort to say. He left the room quickly by the hall door, passing a footman who waited silently with wide eyes, before hurrying downstairs to his study.
“Emma, dearest, come closer.” Her mother’s pale hand groped for her daughter’s; the sick woman seemed hardly strong enough to lift her eyelids and look at her.
“I’m here, Mother.” Emma managed to keep the sob from her voice by swallowing it hard. She rushed forward and took her mother’s cold hand.
“Joy of my days. Both of you girls. Such lovely young women.” Mrs. Fletcher forced her bloodshot eyes open and beheld her daughter. “How I would have loved to see you dance.”
“I don’t care for balls, Mama. I never have,” Emma assured her.
Mrs. Fletcher smiled, and her weak hand fluttered towards the bedside table. “Your drawings have taken me out of this room and down to the waterside, my dear. Thank you.”
Emma looked at the sketches she had done of the harbor and fought back another tide of tears. “We’ll go there again together,” she whispered fiercely.
Sudden, tearing coughs racked Mrs. Fletcher’s slight body, and Emma hurried to support her mother and fluff up the pillows behind her. The physician stepped forward with a draught, and a few forced sips helped her mother find her voice again.
“You must promise me you’ll take care of Elizabeth. She needs you, and I need to know my girls will be together.” Mrs. Fletcher writhed with the effort of speaking. “Promise me.”
“Yes. I promise. I will take care of Elizabeth.” Emma gripped her mother’s frail hand and tried to keep the panic out of her voice.
“And … my love?”
“Yes, Mother. I’m still here.”
“Promise , whenever you feel lonely, you will look at the stars. I’ll be there, my precious girl. I will always be watching over you.” Mrs. Fletcher’s voice faded to a rasp, and then dropped away to pained silence.
“I promise. I promise!”
Mrs. Fletcher’s hand went limp but her chest still rose and fell in shallow breaths. The physician stepped in and called for the footman to fetch Emma’s father. All Emma could do was step back from her mother and hold tight to the promises she’d made.
Five years later, Emma awoke in the night. Elizabeth lay nestled beside her in the big bed they shared, and she was grateful for her sister’s warm presence. Now fifteen, Elizabeth was growing into her sharp limbs, and she no longer flailed about in her sleep.
She used to dream and call out, grieving their lost mother, and Emma had often been awakened by the hard rap of her sister’s precious doll against her head. Emma sat up cautiously and saw Elizabeth’s doll propped up on a shelf across the room. Unable to find the cause of her sudden waking, Emma slipped silently from the bed and wrapped a shawl around her shoulders.
The summer weather had finally started to fade and there was a chill in the air. Five beautiful summers full of flowers and long days spent admiring the sparkling water of the harbor. Five long summers her mother had missed.
Emma pressed a hand to her chest but still could not fill the emptiness. Life had not been a hardship, and their circumstances had not changed, and yet, Emma felt her whole world had been tumbled like the rocks on the beach.
She turned and tucked Elizabeth under the covers securely. Her younger sister needed someone to tend her needs, guide her, and think of her future. After Mrs. Fletcher died, Emma had taken on those responsibilities almost immediately. Their father, on the other hand, had turned all his attention to business.
For the first three years, he had worked tirelessly. He had taken all his meals out or at his club if he ate at all. He rarely saw his daughters before they retired for the night, and he never set foot in Mrs. Fletcher’s sitting room again. Mr. Fletcher found as many reasons as he could to travel often from Whitehaven under the guise of securing his family’s financial independence.
Her father had succeeded in almost ruining his health. For the last two years, he had struggled to keep his relentless business schedule. A succession of doctors had all prescribed him bedrest and a lightening of his attention to his duties, but he refused to listen.
The worry and the weight of her responsibilities made it hard for Emma to breathe. Suddenly, their small, shared bedroom felt too small. She opened the door silently and padded downstairs in her bare feet. If she could just slip into the back garden for a moment, Emma knew she would glimpse the stars and feel some modicum of comfort.
Despite the distance and the chance of clouds, even the faintest starlight still reminded her of her mother’s words and helped ease the pain in her heart.
But it wasn’t just the starlight that lifted Emma’s spirits. The deep hours of the night were the only time she could be alone. Elizabeth’s bright chatter, the housekeeper’s questions about menus, the butler bringing visitors’ cards, and the hundred myriad directions she needed to give the household staff kept her in company from the time she opened her eyes until the time Elizabeth’s breath finally settled into the rhythms of sleep. Emma moved fearlessly down the darkened stairs and felt the thrill of autonomy.
For one brief moment, she was her own person, and it was only then that the world seemed to fill with possibilities. Every other hour was too busy for daydreams.
Emma was twenty years old now and there were no expectations of her marrying. After her mother’s death, she had missed her coming out and, instead, spent all her time raising her sister. The society circles of Whitehaven commended her choices, as she was a comfort to her father. She was also heir to his shipping channels and could, one day, learn about the family business with help from her father’s chosen overseers. Only in the dark and lonely hours of the night could Emma even think of being an independent woman, and the daring notion made her heart race. She smiled dreamily as she reached the marbled foyer and turned down the hall toward the door to the back garden.
The housekeeper and maids were asleep in the attic, and the butler and footmen were in their rooms on the lower floor, but still a light burned on the main floor of their townhome. Emma paused in the passageway and saw the candlelight came from her father’s study.
The door was pulled almost closed, and Emma could have easily moved past unnoticed, but she knew it was that fear very which had gripped her mother in the end. Mrs. Fletcher wanted nothing more than for her family to hold fast together without her and always take care of each other. Emma couldn’t leave her father awake in the night without feeling her mother’s worry.
“Father?” she whispered at the door.
There was no answer, and Emma cautiously opened the door another inch. Her father’s study, once tidy and well-organized, now reminded her of the shifting dunes along the coast. Piles of papers drifted from one surface to another, some settling on the floor, and ledgers lay open with their spines broken. Near the door, propped against a clock that had not been wound in over a year, stood a stack of unopened letters. Emma pushed the door open farther and glimpsed her father slumped over his work-strewn desk.
“Father?” There was a sharp note of worry in her voice.
The doctors had cautioned her in the gentlest terms possible that Mr. Fletcher’s heart was failing. Even on his best days, her father’s face had an ashen pallor, and he often leaned against the wall as he shuffled from room to room. He needed rest and the abatement of all his worries, but what if it was too late?
Emma tiptoed quickly across his study and was relieved to see the sheaf of papers under his head flutter as he breathed in and out. Her own heart had tripled its speed and, for one moment, Emma pressed her hand again to her chest and tried to bring her fears back under control. Mr. Fletcher was still alive, though clearly not well. Emma tried to imagine what her mother would have done in such a situation.
Her father’s study was at the back of the house and directly below the master bedroom he now avoided so assiduously. When she was alive, Mrs. Fletcher had curtailed his late-night work by rapping on the floor to remind him when it was time for bed. A flash of inspiration loosened Emma’s hard-fisted hand and she removed it from her heart with a hopeful flutter.
In the morning, she would convince her father to finally rearrange the townhome. He could make his study both his bedroom and workplace, avoiding the strain the stairs put on his heart, and encouraging him to get a decent night’s sleep as often as possible. Emma knew he would resist, but, if she claimed Elizabeth wanted her own room, he was bound to agree right away.
And, secretly, Emma imagined being able to open the casement in her own room without disturbing anyone; she would be able to gaze at the stars, think of her mother, and dream of an independent future for herself.
Her revelation lifted the weight from her steps, and Emma quickly padded to the old divan, pulling a blanket from under the crooked stacks of books balanced there. She decided it would be worse to shock her father awake, so, instead, she laid the blanket around his shoulders as gently as possible.
While she fussed with the loose folds, Emma’s eyes accidentally strayed to the open ledger on the edge of his desk. Her father had taught her numbers early on, and her mother had made her practice every day. By the time she was twelve, she was in charge of the household ledger, so the tight columns of numbers made perfect sense to her. And what she saw stopped her breath: Mr. Fletcher’s business was sunk into debt.
Eyes stinging, Emma looked away from what she knew she should not have seen, and quickly slipped out of her father’s study. She forgot all about going into the garden to glimpse the stars, and rushed back upstairs to bury herself underneath the covers.
Her pillow was still wet with tears when Elizabeth woke her the next morning.
“Oh, I do hope you are not catching a cold, dear Sister. I wanted us to walk to the market today, but your eyes do look red!” Elizabeth paused to study her sister, but only for a moment before she turned to select a different scarf to wear.
Emma wanted to cancel their plans, but the day was sunny and bright, and it would be hard to justify doing so. “Don’t fear, Elizabeth. The fresh air should do me all the good in the world.”
“It will. Hurry now!” Elizabeth seized her favorite reticule, stuffed her handkerchief and a few hat pins inside, and dashed downstairs.
Emma tried to tell herself the walk would clear her head, but she could not help worrying about what amount of money there was to spend. She lingered over her wash basin and took her time dressing, all in the hopes that her father would be gone before she descended the stairs.
She was afraid he would see the worry in her face and know she had stolen into his study uninvited. How had he hidden such a terrible secret from them for so long?
Finally, knowing her sister was waiting anxiously, Emma gathered her strength and went downstairs. The housekeeper met her at the door to the dining room and informed her Mr. Fletcher had already gone out for the day. The older woman met her young mistress’s eyes with a frown that said she had tried to persuade him otherwise for the sake of his health, but yet again, he had refused to listen.
“Thank you,” Emma told her before she joined her sister at breakfast.
“It’s such a lovely day; don’t you think we should buy some fruit? Cook could make your favorite fruit jelly for tonight,” Elizabeth suggested.
“Perhaps just simple fare for tonight is best,” Emma said. The housekeeper again caught her eye, and Emma wondered how well-acquainted the sharp woman was with her family’s dwindling fortunes. “We can indulge another day. Perhaps when Father can join us.”
“Yes, Mistress.” The housekeeper nodded her assent, gave a shallow curtsy, and disappeared through the servants’ door and down to the kitchen to inform the cook.
Emma took a deep breath once the woman was out of earshot and tried to exhale all her worries. Elizabeth, still chattering on about the joys of the marketplace and shopping, did not notice her sister’s heavy sigh, and they finished breakfast quickly. Hopeful she would be able to breathe easier outside, once they were ready, Emma hurried her sister out of the door and down the street.
They had only gone a few yards when Elizabeth gave an exuberant cry. “Oh, Sister! There is Anna. Could we walk with her and her family?”
“Go ahead, Elizabeth, and walk with your friend. I want to take in the fresh air. We can meet up again at Market Place,” Emma told her.
Emma waved to Anna’s family as Elizabeth joined them, then continued her slow pace, giving herself time to think. The worrying questions crowded her mind: Could Father save his shipping business? Was there any way he could supplement his income? Should they sell the townhome and move to a smaller holding?
Underneath all her worries and grief, Emma felt the same unexpected thrill she had felt when walking freely in the dark of the house the night before. Might there be something she could do to earn a living and help support her family?
It was almost an illicit idea and her cheeks warmed at the thought, but there were no other immediate solutions she could think of. She was still deep in her daring thoughts when she met up with Elizabeth in the crowded market square.
“I’m glad to see some color back in your face,” Elizabeth announced, though she herself had lost her bright smile.
“Whatsoever is the matter, dear?” Emma asked her sister.
Elizabeth’s lips parted on a soft wail. “Anna is going to London this season and I shall be left all alone! She’s only going to be taking care of the younger ones and run errands for her older sisters, but she’ll still be in town.”
“Anna is not of age yet. And, with three elder sisters who have already celebrated their coming out, she’ll most likely spend her season playing seamstress and maid,” Emma pointed out, trying to comfort her sister.
“And governess to a pack of her own siblings,” Elizabeth added with a thoughtful smile. Perhaps her friend wouldn’t have such a grand time as she had first imagined.
Her good humor at once restored, Elizabeth moved on easily to shopping, but Emma remained distracted. Children ran unsupervised throughout the market square and Emma realized how aptly her sister had likened them to wild dogs. Those on a shorter leash were always attached to a frazzled mother or trailed after by an exhausted servant.
The older siblings were always responsible for the younger ones, and Emma found herself glad she and her sister came from a small family. While she had been forced to abandon some of her educational studies when she took charge of Elizabeth’s upbringing, the loss had never been a trial for her. But she felt she would have enjoyed those studies now … if they didn’t remind her so sharply of the loss of their mother.
That thought stayed with her throughout the busy day and, even though her father had made a rare appearance at the dinner table, it remained foremost in her mind. “Father, do you remember the name of my drawing teacher?”
“Ms. Smith?” he guessed at random.
“Ms. Smythe,” Elizabeth corrected him. “She used to praise Emma all morning and berate me all afternoon. I’ve still not learned to sketch a decent landscape.”
“Your talent always lay at the spinet,” Emma reminded her.
“Your music teacher’s name was Bennett,” Mr. Fletcher remembered suddenly. “He told your mother repeatedly that you both had talent and should attend a music salon, but she did not want you to narrow your interests.”
“So, we added French and Italian to our studies instead,” Elizabeth said with a groan. “Oh, how terrible I was at tenses!”
Emma smiled. “You’re much better now we’ve been reading French literature out loud in the afternoons.”
Mr. Fletcher gave his eldest daughter a small smile. “How good of you to continue to improve yourself, my dear.”
He stopped before he dared to say their mother would be proud of them, and a heavy silence settled over the table until the next course. When the footmen had cleared away the soup and the butler had brought in the roast for Mr. Fletcher to carve, the subject of their accomplishments arose once again.
“You should see Emma’s needlepoint, Father,” said Elizabeth. “One small needle is all she needs to create a veritable garden of perfect flowers.”
Emma refrained from remembering how fond Mrs. Fletcher had been of embroidering butterflies and accepted the compliment with bowed head. It was true she was accomplished at drawing, could play a decent air on the spinet, and was well-versed in two languages. She had also learned writing and arithmetic, and had read every book in their father’s jumbled library. The combination of her experiences gave support to the budding idea she had carried around with her all day.
“Perhaps I should unearth the letters of recommendation our teachers left with us and put together a portfolio of my best work,” Emma mused aloud.
“Whatever for?” Elizabeth asked.
Emma took a deep breath and announced: “So that I can go to London and become a governess.”
Both daughters looked to Mr. Fletcher with bated breath. Elizabeth’s face betrayed the fact that she feared she would be left behind, bereft and alone, never to make her debut or be anywhere near a fashionable ball. Emma was afraid he would see through her to the real reason behind her suggestion and forbid her to find employment and try earning an income.
He surprised them both by smiling. “What a truly inspired idea, my dear. In fact, I’ve long been considering writing to Cousin Matilda. She loved your mother dearly and always hoped you would stay with her whenever you finally go to London. I’m certain, between her good connections and your excellent letters of reference, you’ll be accepted by the best agency and placed before the snow has fallen.”
“But, Father, what about me?” Elizabeth burst out.
Mr. Fletcher looked at his youngest with a tired but indulgent smile. “You, my dear, will be a companion to your mother’s cousin until you come of age. With your sister there in London, I have no fear or you, and you will be well-taken care of.”
With that fortuitous conversation, the matter was settled. Letters were dispatched, travel arrangements made, and, after two long weeks of hard traveling by coach, the Fletcher sisters arrived in London.
Robert Duke of Dalwater leaned forward in his carriage seat and called up to his driver. “Why have we slowed?”
“Wagons ahead unloading, Your Grace,” came the prompt yet curt reply.
Robert cursed under his breath, then leaned out of the window. Unfortunately, there appeared to be no rude merchant holding up traffic, and there was no one at which to direct his ire. A flurry of footmen and servants were working to unload the wagons quickly and carry the heavy trunks into a fashionable townhome. Robert could do nothing but slump back on his seat and wait until his carriage had room to move forward.
“Imagining choosing such a time to move one’s household,” Robert muttered to himself. Then he stopped, thought about the date, and as he was alone, let out a long groan. “Of course, the Season is starting. It feels as if it comes earlier and earlier every year.”
Eager to reach town before the cold rains made travel nearly impossible, families had been taking up residence in London sooner each autumn. Robert despised the chaos which the rising number of rental townhomes and the arrival of their new residents caused yearly, but, most of all, he hated the endless rounds of invitations, concerts, and balls they signified.
As a bachelor, it always felt as if hunting season was on … and he was the fox. He would prefer to hide out all winter in his own Dalwater Manor and only venture into London proper to visit his gentleman’s club. Unfortunately, his day’s business could not be avoided any more than the traffic ahead.
After what seemed an age, his driver urged the horses forward and they managed to ease through the chaotic scene. Robert made a note to select a different route on the way home and again hoped he would be able to get away from the city sooner than expected. Once his business was concluded, he wished to get out into the surrounding countryside quickly and be at home at Dalwater Manor as soon as possible.
His second wish was to accomplish his business without running into any acquaintances, but that hope was crushed as soon as he set foot out of his carriage. “Your Grace!” called a voice.
Robert looked about and recognized the acquaintance, though he could not recall the lord’s name. “Good afternoon,” he responded politely.
“How wonderful to see you here just in time for the Season. It’s been too many years since you did our young ladies the great honor of attending a ball or two!” The older, jovial lord grinned at him.
“I’m here on urgent business, my lord. Good day to you.”
The smiling lord would not be deterred. “Still worried about the gossipmongers, eh? Your Grace must know that all of London stands behind you. Women are fickle creatures, and you may have caught one of the worst of them. But, come now, there will be plenty of fresh faces and angelic charms this year to enjoy, will there not? Won’t you join my friends and I for dinner this evening?”
Robert ground his teeth. He did not like using his sister as an excuse, but he simply could not stomach the idea of getting caught up in another London Season. “Apologies, dear sir, but I am only here to conclude my duties to my sister.”
The lord’s face paled. “Yes, of course. Terrible tragedy. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.”
“Thank you, sir.” Robert touched the brim of his hat with finality, then took the stone steps of the office building in front of him two at a time.
“Well, there you are. About time,” a sharp voice greeted him once inside.
Lady Susan, Dowager Duchess of Dalwater, rapped her cane on the floor. Though she had no need for its support, his mother wielded the gilded wood to express her every emotion. He recognized her claw-like grip on the carved head as a sign of impatience, but her other hand fluttered above the other, which worried him. They were not there on happy business and the strain of it showed in the barely noticeable action. On top of that, she had been kept waiting, and that simply would not do.
“Mother, I’m sorry, I did not know you would be in attendance. Have they not settled you in the office with refreshments?” Robert looked around and saw footman a wearing a pained expression standing stiffly in the corner. Obviously, the offer had been made and refused, putting the young man in an awkward position.
“I told them my son would be here to escort me.” The Dowager sniffed. She took Robert’s offered arm and rapped her cane again. “Well? Tell them we are ready!”
The footman leaped from his post, and seconds later the doors to an elegant but austere office were thrown open. A host of clerks stood ready to greet the Duke and Dowager Duchess, each looking as if he’d swallowed an egg whole.
“Our man must be tied up in court,” The Dowager told Robert.
The team of replacements all spoke at once, eager to assure the pair that the matter at hand could be dealt with immediately and efficiently by themselves. They were there to hear the final will and testimony of The Marquess and Marchioness of Allernach, Robert’s recently departed sister and brother-in-law. He was ready to conclude the interview as quickly as possible, but his mother was sure to insist that the proper protocol be observed.
“Thank you, but we will wait,” he told the clerks. He led his mother across the room and seated her on a stiff settee by the window.
The clerks, driven by the horror of somehow offending their superior clients, stumbled over each other with offers of refreshments, reading material, and other entertainments for what they were certain would be a short wait.
“Tea, thank you,” Robert said with a dismissive nod.
The order was given, and servants rushed in from another door to set out the tea service. The dowager took one look at the lot of them, waved them all away, and set about pouring the tea herself. Mother and son were left alone in the grand office to await their barrister’s attendance.
Robert stifled a sigh as he joined his mother, taking his tea the way she preferred him to drink it. “How have you fared these past six months, Mother?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Six months, and only a handful of visits from you. Six months since your dear sister passed and we’ve all but become strangers!”
“And yet your weekly letters and instructions make me feel as if I haven’t missed a moment,” Robert said drily.
The dowager’s hard countenance cracked a little, and she gave him a fond glance as she handed him his tea. “You always were a trying child. Not at all like your niece and nephew. Don’t mistake me, the children are a terrible burden to someone my age, but their good manners far exceed yours.”
Robert frowned into his tea cup. He had almost forgotten his sister’s children. Six months ago, their mother and father had died in a tragic carriage accident, and they had been living with the dowager since that sad time. “Abigail, correct? And Hammond?”
“Henry.” She corrected him sharply.
Robert was saved further censure as the door again opened and a stern man stepped inside. He was the late Marquess of Allernach’s barrister and it was his duty to read them the last will and testimony. His tone was clipped and businesslike, but even the dowager could not fault his impeccable manners. He commenced at once.
First, there was a laboriously detailed list of all the marquess’ properties, then a litany of other holdings. Without a change in tone or tempo, the barrister checked off one heirloom at a time and which esteemed family member, friend, or acquaintance would receive the beloved object. He went through every item of the deceased couple’s magnificent estate, right down to the last clutch of chicks to be born the week before the accident.
Almost lulled into a stupor by the man’s monotonous voice, Robert started suddenly at the final clause. “Guardian? Me?”
“Your Grace has been appointed the legal guardian of both Miss Abigail and Master Henry. They will remain your wards until the former is appropriately married and the latter reaches his majority,” the barrister repeated.
“Ah, your sister,” the dowager said in a wistful voice. “She always knew just how to set you straight.”
Robert scratched at his mutton-chop sideburns and tried not to think of his beloved sister. It still felt as if she were off touring the countryside and would soon be there to laugh at all his little blunders over dinner. He could barely admit she was truly gone; how was he to deal with her heartbroken children?
“There must be some mistake. Allernach must have relatives who would love and care for the children much better than myself,” Robert declared.
The barrister opened his mouth to speak, but the dowager duchess interrupted him with a sharp rap of her cane. “I’m afraid not, dear Robert. Otherwise the children would not have been underfoot at my expense these last few months.”
Knowing his mother had never been the nurturing kind, Robert could not hope the children would find a better home with their grandmother. The dowager duchess was loving and generous in her heart, but she firmly believed in the old adage that to spare the rod would spoil the child.
She also believed in the letter of the law, and now stood up to show she was content with the reading of the will, and that their business was concluded.
Robert leapt to his feet a second too late and earned a stern look from his mother. “You are no longer to reside at the townhome and shall now escort me home to Dalwater Manor to greet the children,” she told him.
His heart sunk as he realized his dream of a peaceful, reclusive winter was gone. “Yes, Mother.”
Outside the offices, the dowager waved away Robert’s carriage. He gave her a hand into her own conveyance, where she could not even wait until he was seated across from her before she started in with her undisputable advice. “The children will need a firm hand. Their minds have not been on their studies whatsoever these past few months, and you must remedy that immediately.”
“They are still grieving their mother,” Robert pointed out against his best interests.
The dowager arched an eyebrow at him. “That is why you should marry as soon as possible. Give them the family they need, Robert, and stop your dithering.”
Robert gave a short bark of laughter. “Of course, that is your solution. If the circumstances weren’t so tragic, I might imagine that you and my sister have had this planned all along.”
“She did not approve of you locking yourself away. This was to be your Season, she told me, and I intend to see her vindicated.”
“And I’m sure you already have a list of appropriate matches for me.” Robert wearily leaned his head back on the carriage seat and closed his eyes. “I merely hope you haven’t encouraged any of their families, because I am still not inclined to marry.”
“Your inclination matters very little now that you have the children to think of.”
With that the dowager sniffed and the conversation was closed. The carriage ride to Dalwater Manor, nestled deep in the countryside surrounding the great metropolis, did not take long. To Robert, it felt like an age. Just that morning, his plans had been simple and his preferred life of near-reclusiveness undisturbed. Now, he was trapped between his mother and his sister’s offspring, and he rather fancied he’d rather be drawn and quartered.
Abigail, his sister’s eldest child, appeared at the top of the grand staircase as soon as he and the dowager entered the Great Hall. She was seventeen years old, almost the exact copy of his sister, and Robert paused in shock. He realized in an instant how difficult it must have been for his mother to see his niece make such sudden appearances during their last six months of grieving. The girl, obviously anxious to know her fate, rushed down the stairs and caught herself just in time to give the dowager a deep curtsy.
“There, there, my dear. No need to fear you will be shipped off across the Atlantic. Your uncle here is now your legal guardian and Dalwater Manor shall remain your home,” the dowager said reassuringly.
Robert thought it heartwarming how quickly his mother eased the girl’s anxiety. He could see a close bond had already been formed between the two, and he wondered if it meant his niece would be his ally … or a spy for the dowager. Either way, he had no desire to come between them and would have preferred to be absent from the scene all together.
Instead, he gave Abigail a gentlemanly bow. “Welcome home, dear niece.”
“And to you, Uncle Robert!” She surprised him with a quick embrace that exposed her still-childish sensibilities.
“Avast, ye pirates! What noise is this?” The door to the library swung open and a slim boy wielding a wooden sword leapt into the hall. He stopped short when he saw the company gathered at the bottom of the staircase and, in his panic, tried to hide the toy weapon behind his back.
“Henry!” Abigail and the dowager cried as one.
Robert chuckled. “Never fear, my captain. It is none but your loyal crew.”
“Uncle Robert!” The ten-year-old boy flew across the Great Hall and gave Robert a collision more than a hug.
“Where on earth did you find that sword?” Robert asked.
Henry grinned. “I had one of the stablemen help me make it. Your estate has absolutely no amusements whatsoever.”
“I told you, Henry. You are too old for playthings and you should be concentrating on your studies.” Abigail sounded remarkably stern and much like her grandmother.
Robert grinned. “Don’t worry, Henry. Your grandmother is already converting me from bachelor to guardian, and I’m sure my estate will undergo the necessary changes to accommodate you. Besides, we can always begin your studies with Naval History.”
“So, is it true? Are we to stay with you now?” Henry asked.
Abigail took hold of her over-eager brother and chastised him. “They’ve only just arrived. Don’t bombard everyone with your questions.”
The boy reluctantly followed his sister back to the library. “But who can I bombard then? Will you tell me what is going on?”
Robert watched his niece usher his nephew through the door, then turn and give him and his mother an apologetic curtsy. His heart clutched again as he saw her resemblance to his sister. It was a shame she was not here to guide her own children, and Robert feared he would be a terrible replacement for their parents’ love.
“I cannot believe you think this is what is best for them,” he told his mother.
The dowager rapped her cane to contradict him. “You are family, Robert. Besides, I’ve decided I shall remain at Dalwater Manor for the Season. I shall be here to assist you and see you and your new family settled quite comfortably.”
He longed to argue with her, but the dowager called for her lady’s maid and went upstairs to rest before dinner. She left him standing in the Great Hall, not knowing which way to turn. The arrangements for him to move from the London townhome back to the manor were already underway and would be done within two days.
Robert often moved back and forth at a moment’s notice and both residences held everything he needed in between. In the end, he had no choice but to go to his rooms and dress for dinner.
Dinner was a painful affair, full of the dowager’s strict lessons on etiquette. Poor Henry squirmed, spilled his soup course, and knocked half a jelly off his plate and onto the floor. Abigail tried unsuccessfully to speak with the dowager about plans for the Season and was instead corrected on everything from her posture to the way she put her fork in her mouth.
Even Robert was upbraided, first for his selection of cheese, and then for his consumption of wine. By the seventh course, everyone was exhausted, and the children elected to go straight to their rooms.
“And where exactly do you think you are going?” The dowager asked Robert.
“Proper manners require that I now take a brandy,” Robert said.
The dowager frowned, certain he was not answering her question, though she had no choice but to let him disappear. “Good night, then,” she sniffed.
As soon as the door closed between them, Robert knocked back his brandy and summoned his carriage. He was back in the center of London within the hour and finally breathed a sigh of relief when he alighted on the steps of his club, Bradsby’s.
But even the sanctuary usually offered by Bradsby’s was limited because of the Season drawing ever nearer. Robert gritted his teeth and moved through the crowded rooms until he caught sight of the Duke of Elsby. “Theo! Thank God. What a day I’ve had. You have no idea.”
Theo grinned and gestured for a waiter to follow with their drinks. He steered his friend to a more private corner, where the two young dukes sat in comfortably stuffed leather chairs. “Turns out I may know more than you think.” Theo told him once they were settled.
Robert groaned. “Is there to be no more privacy anywhere?”
“Not in any corner of London that gossip can reach,” Theo said. “So, you’ve acquired yourself a fine pair of children, eh?”
Robert paused and sipped at his drink thoughtfully. “They are a fine pair. Wonderful, actually. Though the girl looks too much like my sister.”
“Bit like seeing a ghost about the manor?” Theo gave his friend a sympathetic look. He had grown up in the same circles as Robert and his sister, and he had been as fond of the marchioness as he was his own siblings.
“Exactly,” Robert said.
“Well, there are cures for children, you know. Pack them off to the countryside; send the girl to finishing school and the boy into the Navy; or you could just hire a governess and go on as if nothing has changed.”
“The dowager has declared she’ll be staying at Dalwater throughout the Season.”
Theo’s hearty laugh drew a few glances from the other gentlemen in the room. “Ah, well then, everything will be taken care of without you having to say a word.”
“She claims the children need a mother and that, accordingly, I must marry posthaste.” Robert ground his teeth as Theo laughed again. “Though, perhaps you’re right. If I hire a governess, there would be no need for my life to change.”
Robert leaned back in his club chair and felt his shoulders relax for the first time all day. Perhaps, just perhaps, there was a way he could fulfill his duties to the children without raising his mother’s ire and without hanging the marriage noose around his own neck. He toasted Theo for his wise advice, now assured his future need not change as much as he had originally feared.
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