Courtship with a Reclusive Viscount
Cynthia cast a dejected look at the waiting carriage and then turned her attention back to Lily. The girl’s chin jutted out as she held her tears back, though a fat droplet was poised at the outer corner of her eye ready to spill down her face.
“Has the time come then?” Cynthia asked. They were outside the house; the brisk wind and warm sunshine belied the somber mood of the day. Lily had tried to master her sadness, but it was no longer any use. As Cynthia’s governess, it was her duty to portray the fine manners that would be demanded of the young girl as she grew into a woman. Her term of employment, however, was over, and she no longer needed to present herself in a manner that set an example for the young lady. Her tears flowed freely down her face.
“I believe it has.” Lily glanced over at the carriage that was meant for her. She had left this place many times in the last four years. However, it was always with the knowledge that she was to shortly return. Now, with Cynthia her student already sixteen, her services were no longer needed.
“You won’t forget me, will you?” Cynthia burbled. Lily embraced the girl, now the young woman whom she had carefully tutored for the last four years. It was such a foolish thing, she thought, to be so amazed by something as simple as the passing of time. Regardless, she felt a deep sense of gladness and honor to have seen Cynthia through such a formative period of her life. Now, the young woman will soon join Society.
She was enormously fond of Cynthia and would miss her. Always a good student, her effort despite her shortcomings was admirable. She, like Lily, was a natural artist, but languages confounded her. She would miss the Spencer home as well, having lived there with the family as if it were her own. Mr. Spencer, a solicitor, kept a modestly staffed household just outside of London.
Despite her unique position as governess, she and Cynthia had been able to form something akin to a friendship. Perhaps their shared experience of having no siblings had bonded them. Still early in her career, Lily had not been through enough partings to harden her heart. In the days preceding her departure, she had imagined how it might feel, but the reality of their farewell was far more bitter than fantasy. She cried freely, stroking Cynthia’s hair.
“How could you suggest such a thing?” she chastised. Mr. and Mrs. Spencer were standing at the door of the house, there to see her off with Cynthia. As it was her final day, she did not mind her decorum, allowing her feelings to get the better of her. She gently released herself from Cynthia’s arms.
“Expect a letter from me. I will write to you as soon as I arrive home.” Cynthia’s sweet face, still round and youthful despite having come to the end of her schooling, was splotched with redness and tears. She nodded, clumsily fishing for her handkerchief to clean her face. Lily gave her another tight hug.
“I will no longer be present to follow you around, but I do expect continued excellence at your new institution,” Lily said, in her authoritative governess voice. Cynthia giggled despite her tears and nodded earnestly. Her next destination was a prestigious seminary school for ladies. Her parents intended that she come out the next year, and a year in seminary would grind down the last of her hard edges and turn her into the debutante they wanted her to be.
Her destiny was to become a fine, refined lady of Society. If she was especially fortunate, she would make a match during her first Season and would be married. It would happen regardless in a few years’ time, to a suitable gentleman. A man of means, no doubt. Handsome too, with some luck. Married and in charge of her own staff one day, Cynthia would eventually welcome her own children, and the cycle would begin once again.
Lily felt a warm pride in having played an important role in Cynthia’s grooming. To come out at seventeen seemed extremely exciting. She had never come out herself, knowing even at that age that she was destined to earn her livelihood as an unmarried governess. Indeed, she had been seventeen when she had come to live with the Spencers.
Such a different life young Cynthia would have. Lily felt excitement at the things Cynthia had to look forward to despite her destiny being very different. A life spent married to a kind, handsome, and well-bred man, replete with a happy household and children was simply not hers to contemplate. Lily had been disabused of such fantasies many years ago. Teaching and molding young minds had become her passion as much as it was her vocation.
She went briefly over to Mr. and Mrs. Spencer to bid her final goodbyes.
“I suppose mankind would not be able to appreciate anything if things, even sweet ones, didn’t come to an end,” she said. Mrs. Spencer smiled at her.
“I don’t believe we could’ve asked for a better governess for our daughter. She absolutely adores you, and these years have been invaluable to us.” The Spencers were kind and fair employers. Her room had been comfortable and warm and her wages competitive. When the need arose for her to return home for whatever reason, she had never had to fear that her employers would demand she remain. It was a shame Cynthia was their only child because Lily would have enjoyed staying longer.
She’d had no worries for her livelihood whilst working for them. As the engagement had come to an end, however, a slight anxiety about her new placement reared its head. Not every family regarded their staff with such care. It was still early in her career, but Lily did not doubt that she might come across families who were cruel. Her good fortune thus far had been rare rather than being the rule.
“We are sending you off with a glowing reference. Don’t worry yourself about finding employment,” Mr. Spencer said. Lily smiled gratefully at the man. Throughout her employment, most of her interaction had been with Cynthia’s mother, but her father was also an upright and fair gentleman. Coming away from the predictable routine of her long-term employment had brought up fears for Lily. She wanted to face her new engagements with optimism. Nevertheless, she went through each day hoping that luck would strike again, and she would find work with a family as kind as the Spencers.
“I am incredibly grateful, thank you so much,” she said, shaking Mr. and Mrs. Spencer’s hands. After one final hug with Cynthia, she boarded her carriage. She had already said goodbye to the other staff in the house, to whom she had also grown close, rising earlier than necessary that morning in order to bid them farewell. Seated in the carriage, her tears welled up once more. As it lurched into action, she leaned out and waved to Cynthia. The young woman furiously waved back. Lily waved until Cynthia, her parents, and then their house were no more than a speck in the distance.
Resting her back against her seat, sobs bubbled up in her chest. She cried into her handkerchief, already missing her previous life. She had cried just as hard when she left home in order to take up residence with the Spencers four years earlier. Having never lodged with a family before, her worries had seemed endless. What if they did not find her a good match? She’d lived comfortably in London with her clergyman father. What if the family demanded she bed down in the stable amongst the horses? Every conceivable eventuality, however outlandish, had plagued her for days, until the point when they were proven wrong.
“It—it’s all right, Lily,” she sniveled to herself. “Even more success awaits you in the future.” She looked sadly out of the window. The image of the familiar countryside blurred into watery nothingness as her tears continued to fall. She would be all right. She had been an excellent governess and her reference would see her successfully placed in no time.
Still, she would miss the Spencers. Leaning her head against the side of the carriage, she felt every bump and pit in the road. She would be home in under two hours. Smoothing her black skirts with her hands, she readied herself for the journey. Doubtless, she would feel better once she was home. As much as she’d loved living with the Spencers, paying visits home to her father had also been a joy.
Despite the bumps in the road, she eventually drifted off into a fitful sleep. She awoke to see her surroundings coalescing into the familiar streets and structures leading to her home. Her emotions already high from leaving the Spencers for the last time, she was filled with excitement as her home drew ever nearer. She stuck her head from the window, her senses furiously absorbing her surroundings as if she was experiencing them for the first time. The murmurs of people passing on foot, stagnant puddles remaining stubbornly filled, the worn paint on shop signs . . . everything seemed to be welcoming her back. The rocking carriage could not move fast enough for her.
Her thoughts went to her father. She worried for him sometimes, living day after day alone, but he’d always been happy to see her whenever she’d had time off from her work with the Spencers. A rare man indeed: he had not remarried after her mother’s death. Now, not knowing when her next engagement would come from the employment agency, Lily looked forward to spending some time with him, even if she was unsure how long it would be.
The longer the wait, the more anxious she knew she would become. The shorter the wait, the less time she could spend with her father. How vexing that career success came at the cost of the one family member she had. No aunts or uncles were known to her. No cousins had played with her throughout her childhood. It seemed right that she was a governess, occupying a space where it seemed only she alone could fit.
As soon as the carriage came to a stop outside her house, she scrambled to the ground. Her father waited at the door of their small townhouse, the smile on his face even bigger than hers. She ran up to him, jumping into his waiting embrace. She had started the day with tears, but feeling her father’s coarse beard on her cheeks, she felt the warm embrace of home. She was not sure how long she would be able to stay or where the next engagement would take her, but for the time being, she became a little girl again.
“My dearest daughter. How was the journey?” he asked her, finally releasing her.
“The trip was fine, but I will miss the Spencers terribly,” she said. He helped her with her luggage despite her protests. They had both a butler and a housekeeper, but he insisted on spoiling her. They entered the house, Lily’s lungs filling with the familiar scents. Something cooking, no, baking. There was a scent of cinnamon in the air. She smelled polish and wax, the smells of home. Her heart sang, knowing that when she visited her quarters, she would be greeted by her old bed, her books, and her paints.
“Welcome home,” her father said, as they entered their parlor. She thought he looked thinner. She wanted that to be the case rather than him looking older. His posture and health were excellent. Many men who had not even reached their thirtieth year struggled to display his vitality. Already past forty, he was no longer young, but she believed fiercely that they had many more years together yet.
“How long will I have the pleasure of your company, my dear?” he asked.
Lily worried at her lip. “I can’t say. I would prefer the sojourn not last too long,” she said carefully. He threw his head back and laughed.
“You have only just arrived and already you want to be rid of me,” he said.
“No, no, Father,” she said with a laugh. “My livelihood depends on employment. I know the Spencers regarded me highly, so I hope the wait between engagements won’t last too long.” It didn’t reflect well if a governess was not in high demand. The reason for her dismissal was a good one. She had not been sacked, and there was no scandal surrounding the end of her term with the family. She relied on their goodwill to secure another position. If the wait was longer than hoped, she would begin to doubt her skills and worry that she had not done as good a job as she believed she had.
“Your shoes and hat are still on, my dear. You have plenty of time to worry about your livelihood later. Wash up and join me for tea,” her father said. The protest was ready in her throat. He didn’t understand, she wanted to stay. Christenings, marriages, and burials happened every day, but it was much harder to secure a good long-term post as a governess. She readied herself to argue, but then stopped.
Minutes after walking through the door was no time to worry herself over such matters. At the very least, she should find cause to worry first. Yes, tea with her father after her journey sounded splendid.
A Fortnight Later
Lily’s hands shook so much that the writing on the page blurred. She could not read it. The letter had been presented to her after breakfast as she had waited for her father. With her father having no appointments that day, they had intended to go shopping together that morning, but their plan would now have to be scrapped. She had been expecting the letter. Indeed, she had been counting on its arrival. But when it finally had arrived, the news it contained proved so gratifying as to have her wondering whether it could be true.
“Will you have me guess what the contents of the letter are?” her father asked, coming to the edge of the settee where his daughter sat and trying to read the letter himself. She looked up at him, meeting his expectant gaze.
“It’s a letter,” she said foolishly, immediately laughing because she was so joyful, almost giddy, at the news.
“I can see that, my dear. Are there words on the paper, perhaps?” her father teased. She laughed again, holding the letter aloft so she could read it out loud.
“It is addressed to Miss Lily Conway. It says she is required to call at the employment agency today with regards to a prospective placement,” she said, her eyes quickly skimming the letter again, confirming the good news. Her father made a face.
“So soon?” he said, his eyes smiling but his mouth betraying his disappointment.
“Father, was a fortnight together not long enough for you?”
“Nowhere near enough,” he said. “What else do they say?”
She shook her head. “Nothing more to report,” she told him. The contents of the letter was scant, with barely any information other than that there was a prospective placement.
Her mind conjured up the missing details itself, of course, creating a scenario that would be wholly favorable to her employment. She imagined another happy family like the Spencers, a sweet, smiling pupil like Cynthia. She would be comfortable with one child but she was ready to handle two. What about a family larger than that? She had not considered it yet. Five or six young children in the schoolroom, as if she was teaching at a seminary school? The thought made her anxious, but buoyed by the good news, she was blind to all but happy outcomes. How long would the next engagement last? It would certainly be a number of months if not years, similar to her length of stay with the Spencers. Where were these prospective employers resident, she wondered? London?
Anticipation warmed her chest and made it difficult to stay in her seat. Breathing deeply to compose herself, she reconciled with the fact that it was as likely she would be placed with a lovely family as a truly awful one. She hoped for good fortune, pray for it, but she would remain cautiously optimistic.
Leaving right away, her father accompanied her to the employment agency, which had helped her secure her position with the Spencers four years past. The agents had received her reference and had been working to place her with a suitable family. Her reference was extremely strong, so she hoped for similar good news that day too.
The agency was located on the first floor of a large building. The entrance was unassuming, but upon going in, Lily found her confidence leaving her. What would happen if she did not find a match? A receptionist instructed her to wait to be seen by an agent, forcing her to tarry amongst the other people seeking work. The agency specialized in the placement of female workers, governesses like her, housekeepers, nurses, and the like. A woman older than her was seated close by. Her face was drawn, and her entire aspect seemed slumped and weakened from years of work. Though Lily did not will it, her mind began to consider all kinds of unsavory fates if she did not find work successfully. First, she imagined employment at a workhouse or, even worse, making a living on the street.
She knew very well that her father would never allow anything like that to happen to her. Regardless, her hands wrung together as she awaited her turn to speak to the agent, Mr. Wilson, who had written her the letter.
Mr. Wilson was a man who appeared younger than her father. Still, he had the look of a man who had spent many nights wide awake. There were deep furrows between his eyebrows and trenches in the lines leading from the corner of his nose to the ends of his mouth. There was neither beauty nor elegance in his person, but Lily did not find herself uncomfortable or unnerved by the man. Although, it made sense that sitting in front of him should make her anxious because, as the employment agent, her future was very much in his large, calloused hands.
She wondered absently whether her appearance was comely enough. Her blonde hair was, as usual, swept back into a chignon. Any hairs that dared fly away were quickly tamed. She had no time for fashion and frivolity. Her hands and nails were always clean, her dresses simple yet smart, always black. Though she wore no cosmetics, her skin was healthy and bright. Her first impression was good. Pleasant enough to work with children, her station and breeding were evident despite needing to work.
“Miss Conway,” Mr. Wilson began. Lily found herself shifting forward in her seat as if to hear the man better. Her father was at her side. “We have been in search of a governess position for you, and we have found a possible match.”
Lily paused before speaking to retain her composure.
“My previous engagement was four years long. It terminated as my student came of age.”
“Indeed. Might I say your recommendation from Mr. and Mrs. Spencer is one of the best I have ever read?”
“I am eternally grateful for everything they have done for me,” she said.
“The Earl and Countess of Greenewood are looking for a governess for their children. They were extremely impressed with the reference provided by the Spencers.”
Lily glowed with pride.
“Oh, no, my dear,” Mr. Wilson cautioned, “do not look quite so glad yet. They require you to start immediately, if you will take the position.”
“Of course, I will take the position.”
“Lily, allow the man to tell you more about the family. Where will you be living, what is the salary, for instance?” her father put in. She was so eager for another posting, she was happy to take the post and have all her questions answered afterwards. The Spencers were a respectable family with a comfortable income, but a nobleman and his wife believing her fit to teach their children was a dizzying prospect.
“They do not live in London,” Mr. Wilson said, his eyes warning.
“That’s no problem at all. You say it as if they live in India,” she said. When the man was silent, her mirth died. “They don’t live in India, do they?”
“Nowhere quite so exotic. Greenewood Manor is out in the countryside, more than a day’s travel from here.”
“That won’t be a problem, sir,” she said.
“And,” he said, almost as if he wished to undermine her enthusiasm, “they need you to report in two days’ time.”
“Two days? That’s far too soon,” her father protested. Lily worried her lip with her teeth, then stopped, remembering it was a habit she had often chastised Cynthia for. Two weeks at home had been more than enough time to rest and regain the verve she had for her work. This new posting, however, asked her to plunge headfirst into an appointment far away without so much as a few days to prepare.
“Have they arranged travel?” she asked.
“If you take the position, their carriage will take you to their home in two days’ time. The journey is long, so lodgings at an inn halfway have been arranged.”
“Any indication of what they are willing to pay,” her father asked Mr. Wilson. It had slipped Lily’s mind completely to be curious about her possible wage. Having come from the Spencer’s and with her career trajectory in mind, she wanted to receive at least as much if not a bit more than they had paid her. This new family were reportedly nobility, so no doubt their pockets would be deep enough for that.
“I’ll take it,” she said resolutely.
“Let’s think about this, Lily,” her father said, but for Lily, there was nothing more to consider. Her mind was made up. Mr. Wilson had good news to tell the Earl and Countess of Greenewood. Lily’s father’s protestations followed them out of the employment agency as they took to the road on their way back home.
“I don’t understand where your worry comes from, Father.”
“Is it not unorthodox to be called upon so suddenly?”
“Sometimes a governess is required urgently. Do you not want me to go?” she asked.
“I only wish you exercise some caution.”
“Hm,” was her retort.
“Has our conversation ended?” he asked. They walked slowly in step with each other, lost in their own world as the city passed them by.
“Are you saying these things out of concern for my new employment, or the fact that you will miss me when I go?”
“Must I choose one reason? Can it not be both?” he asked. She laughed, thinking him almost childlike at that moment.
“Everything will be fine, Father,” she said.
“You cannot blame me for being cautious,” he said. She nodded, supposing she would never have a husband to ask after her thoughts and feelings, wonder where she was, or what she was doing. Even in that lack, she felt loved and protected by her father. It was not a love that could be easily replicated or handed off to a stranger, so she cherished it. She would return home with her father and in two days, embark on her new adventure.
Lily felt that she had seen far too much of her trunk lately. The inside of the large chest emptied and refilled again and again as she went from place to place. She was off again, this time to Greenewood Manor, about to become a governess once more. The initial trepidation had worn off. Now, she was eager to go, hoping that the long journey did not wear on her too much. She wanted to be able to give a good first impression to the Earl and Countess of Greenewood when she arrived.
It seemed to Lily that she had not felt on solid ground since the beginning of the past month. Hopefully, this next trip would be her last for a while. Her father stood with her on the street beside the waiting Greenewood carriage.
“I will expect a letter at your earliest convenience,” he said. He was stalwart and sturdy, but his eyes betrayed a hint of melancholy as he wished her goodbye.
“Father, at this juncture, are you not used to seeing me off?” she asked, both amused and touched.
“It does not matter how many times I do it, my dear. I can never be brought to enjoy telling my only child goodbye,” he said firmly. Lily enjoyed teasing him, but she highly cherished his unshakable affection for her. Her work did not allow her to keep close friends, and her mother had died seven years back. To know her father’s support was unshakable and strongly rooted as a great oak was a great comfort to her. She boarded the carriage, then started, surprised to find a young woman already seated inside.
“Oh, hello. I beg your pardon,” she said, stumbling as she tried to make her way out of the carriage, thinking she had boarded the wrong one. The woman gesticulated frantically.
“No, no, there is no mistake. Are you Miss Lily Conway?”
Lily straightened up.
“I am she.” The young woman blushed. She was little more than a girl. Lily estimated that she was probably younger than herself.
“It is my error then,” the girl said. “News that I was to ride with you should have come earlier. I am Sarah. I am the countess’s lady’s maid.”
Lily composed herself quickly and boarded the carriage.
“Everything between my visit to the employment agency and departure today has happened so quickly. Some oversight is expected,” she said, taking her seat next to the young woman. Her hair and eyes were dark. She was pretty, but in a way that needed wit and accomplishments to add luster to it. Her small voice and sometimes darting eyes made her appear plainer than she truly was. Lily asked whether the Earl and Countess of Greenewood had sent her to accompany her on the trip.
“Not expressly,” Sarah said. She explained that she had been visiting her sick mother and it was convenient for her to make the trip back at the same time as the new governess. Lily asked a few questions about Sarah’s mother and her health. The issue thankfully was not very serious.
“By the time I was able to visit, she was already on the mend. Her medication is not expensive, and so a long trip was unnecessary,” Sarah reported.
“Quite generous of the earl and countess to give you the time off,” Lily commented. Their carriage had lurched to a start and the journey began.
“Oh, yes, quite,” Lily said, her face brightening as she talked about her employers. “Some employers haven’t quite as much grace.”
“Is it terribly improper for me to ask about them? I know so little. All I was told at the agency was that they needed a governess immediately.”
“The Earl and Countess of Greenewood are wonderful,” Sarah gushed. Lily found herself wondering whether the younger woman had understood her question.
“Naturally, I mostly have to do with the countess, but she’s very warm.”
“She seems to maintain a sunny aspect every day, no matter the weather or whatever small calamities have occurred around the estate.”
Lily’s eyebrows drew together in confusion. That was very much the opposite of the answer she had been expecting. Of course, she hoped for gracious employers, but after learning they were nobility, her expectations shifted slightly. The arrogant, haughty noblewomen she had encountered and heard of were simply too many to count. Her interest in her new employers piqued. She wished their trip was not so long, so that she might meet them sooner.
The women chatted, their conversation coming easily. Sarah was younger but only by two years. She described Greenewood Manor as a peaceful, lovely place to live and the Earl and Countess of Greenewood as a rare example of kind nobility. Lily became very intrigued with the place, the location becoming more mysterious and confounding, even as she was inching ever closer to it. As the trip wore on, the conversation died into a comfortable silence. Soon enough, both the women were nodding off from the gentle rocking of the carriage and the monotony of the passing countryside.
It was well before sunset when they arrived at the inn where they would spend the night. They alighted from the carriage and were met by a smiling, blond man who immediately approached them.
“Robben,” he said, in introduction. He patted the horses’ sweaty flanks. “I’ll mind the beasts while you take your rest inside.” The ostler was tall, his clothes worn from frequent wear and wash, and his skin was browned by the sun.
“Pleased to meet you,” Lily said.
“Two ladies such as yourself, where are you off to?” he asked. Sarah blushed furiously. She tripped and stumbled over her words, almost hiding behind Lily so that she spoke to the man on both their behalf.
“Unfortunately, this is only half of our journey,” Lily told Robben.
“I don’t suppose this lodging is what you’re used to but it’s comfortable enough. Decent food. Good people,” he said. He smiled broadly, his white smile inviting. There was languorous ease in his limbs that made Lily aware of his body. The height and weight of it. The way it moved. Men were not something that interested her in that way. Her occasional errant thoughts when she would find herself imagining and fantasizing were lapses, and she always quickly righted herself.
“Thank you for your welcome, we will enjoy our time here,” she said. She and Sarah made their way towards the entrance.
“Are you and the gentleman acquainted?” Sarah asked.
“Me and which gentleman?” Lily asked, mystified. Sarah motioned towards the ostler, who was now leading the horses away.
“Oh, heavens no. I met him exactly five minutes ago.”
Sarah’s grin was impish.
“I never would have guessed.”
“What on earth are you on about?”
“Such a warm smile and words for a stranger? I daresay the man fancies you,” Sarah said. The laugh bubbled from Lily’s chest before she was able to stop it. She covered her mouth, embarrassed at her sudden outburst.
“Fancies me?” she repeated as they approached the door.
“What is so funny?” Sarah asked, letting Lily enter the inn first.
“I assure you, the man is simply being hospitable. He does not fancy me.”
“Don’t you think you are a lady alluring and interesting enough to attract his attention?”
Lily snorted at that.
“I am a governess.”
“Yes, a governess, but still a woman.”
Lily’s laughter continued. She had overheard the girlish fantasies of the other female servants when working at the Spencers. Wherever women were gathered, the subject of men, handsome ones, eligible ones, rakish ones, would surely follow. She rarely joined in because the matter wasn’t interesting to her. At the same time, she was able to hide her inexperience. Having never courted, she had scarcely even danced with a man, let alone any other activities. She was firmly disabused of any fantasies that would appear in her future.
“But I am a governess first. That life is spent in service. I shall not marry.”
“A life educating other’s children, and you will never have the pleasure of raising your own?” Sarah asked.
Lily’s lips pursed. “If I do not do it, who will?”
Vincent watched the countryside roll by. Endless miles of little, nameless hamlets, rolling green moors, and seemingly interminable sky. How incredibly dull.
His backside ached. He shifted in his seat to make himself comfortable. The constant knocking and rocking of the carriage and the necessity to remain seated for hours on end doing nothing was wearing on him. He looked at his mother, the Dowager Countess of Suthendale, seated to his left, in what seemed to be comfortable silence.
Had Greenewood Manor always been so far away?
“Will you stop that?”
He looked again at his mother, confused by her sharp reproach.
“You’re fidgeting around in your seat like a five-year-old.” He frowned, not appreciating the admonishment.
“Take that up with your daughter, who decided that moving to the middle of nowhere would be advantageous for the rest of her family.”
Regina rolled her eyes and shook her head at her son’s contrary behavior. He bridled at it: with her attitude, anyone would think him a man of sixty and not the thirty-three years that had passed since she had given him birth.
“Your sister extended the invitation to you knowing how often you decline. A person with less grace would have forsaken you entirely by now. I believe you owe her some thanks.”
Why? He did not want to go to Greenewood Manor. This trip, any travel, in fact, even to a closer destination, was simply taking him away from things far more pressing. He was a busy man. Every minute of his day was accounted for. How his mother imagine that Sutton Shipping had managed to stay afloat after the demise of its proprietor fifteen years earlier?
“Her thanks? Indeed, because a party is exactly what I needed.”
Regina turned in her seat to face her son. He was looking out of the carriage dejectedly. Annoyance rippled through his body in the tapping of his foot and the absentminded cracking of his knuckles.
“When was the last time you mixed with Society, Vincent?” she asked him. He snorted because it was a nonsensical question. It was not his duty to mix with Society. Such things were her duty. She derived plenty from it besides the obvious benefits of maintaining social relationships. His work was at his father’s shipping company. Shrewd management over the last fifteen years meant that his sojourn to the countryside would not be a complete disaster for the business, but he still resented being drawn from his work for such a frivolous matter.
“Are you suggesting that the various strangers I have been forced to mix with throughout my life miss me?” he asked. Regina wrinkled her nose at his sarcastic tone.
“Strangers, is it? You don’t happen to be referring to the neighbors, friends, colleagues, and associates who are not only valuable to you but essential?”
“There is no draw for me in a party, Mother.”
The viscount was famously reclusive. He managed the shipping company his father had started and had done so since the age of eighteen, when his father had died. In those fifteen years, the company had expanded and surpassed his father’s projections. The Suthendale fortune had continued to thrive. He attributed his and his family’s success to his ability to focus doggedly on his work. His mother, however, often reduced his dedication merely to an annoying reclusiveness.
“Since moving to the countryside, Isabella rarely gets out. Your answer to every other request has been a prompt refusal. You can make the trip this time.”
He felt annoyed by the building. He had a responsibility to his family, but as far as he was concerned, he more than met it. He met it every day when he arose and spent hours at his work. That was how he served his family. That was how he honored his father’s legacy.
“Besides, it has been so long since the three of us were together,” his mother added. A dastardly tactic, Vincent thought, appealing to his sentimentality. It was how he had been compelled to come on this trip. She had begun her campaign with a letter, then followed it with another. Both had talked about his sister and the beauty of the countryside where she now lived.
Wouldn’t it be nice for you to take a break from your work? Isabella misses us terribly. The children continuously ask after their uncle.
Eventually, it worked. Here he was, his backside seemingly turned to cement, on the two-day ride it would take to arrive at Greenewood Manor. His sister had married herself an earl. The man, Arthur, was decent enough. He wasn’t talkative, but he was kind. He seemed the opposite of his wife’s effervescent personality, but it seemed each was able to make up for what the other lacked.
Admittedly, Vincent didn’t ask after his sister often, but her and Arthur’s two children were a sign that the couple, at the very least, were able to abide by each other with some peace. He felt his lips tug back into a smile, thinking about his niece and nephew. A little shiver of guilt ran through him. His sister did not rely on him for anything, really, but children were always better when surrounded by loving mentors and family members. He didn’t think quite so highly of himself, but children did make him happy. He had been eighteen when he took over his father’s company, but carefree childhood had not been long behind him. He had enjoyed it, even if he had not been able to revel in it for very long, as his niece and nephew were able to.
“I am already here, Mother. The emotional sabotage is unnecessary. You have won,” he said. He turned his attention back outside, spotting a small group of buildings. They appeared to be in disrepair, the small cluster perhaps being the remains of a small settlement of years past, long since abandoned. He felt his mother’s hand touch his thigh.
“You needn’t work yourself to death. You already do more than enough,” she said. While the praise was appreciated, Vincent suddenly felt strange. An uncomfortable heat built in his chest. He did not do what he did for praise. He did it for duty. It was his lot in life, nothing more. He had known it since learning that his father’s title and estate would one day be his. Tenderness, sweetness, and a feminine touch were sorely missing from his life. Usually, he didn’t notice the lack. About to spend the next several days with his mother and sister, he knew he would be sick of it by the time they returned to London.
He knew his father would be proud of him.
He had spent the better part of his life thinking, working, and deliberating on business matters. The way hard labor calloused the hands of laborers and sport muscled the bodies of athletes, his mind had been primed by his work, so that, even in his idle moments, those thoughts came to him the most easily.
When a lull fell between him and his mother, he thought about his work in London, while the carriage continued to journey into the countryside. Suddenly, a sharp, metallic grinding and violent pitching forward of the carriage broke him out of his thoughts.
His mother yelped, losing her seat as the carriage careened on the road. He hurried to steady her as the carriage came to an abrupt stop. After inquiring after and ensuring his mother’s safety, he clambered out of the carriage. Approaching the coachman, he demanded an explanation.
“We nearly turned over. What happened?” he asked the man brusquely. The fellow was already hunched over the front left wheel of the carriage, inspecting it closely. Straightening up, his face seemed drawn.
“I’m afraid we have lost a wheel, my lord.”
“Lost it? Where has it gone?”
“There was a pit in the road, and the collision was hard enough not only to displace the wheel but also break it.”
Vincent sighed. If only he was seated snugly behind his desk at his company offices, he would not be required to deal with such irritating matters. He calmed his frustration, unwilling to blame the poor coachman for what was, he felt, likely a curse from above.
“It needs to be mended, then. How long will that take?” he asked.
“I’m afraid the carriage is inoperable, my lord. Any repairs will have to happen overnight,” the coachman told him. Vincent’s consternation grew. He had noticed earlier that the day was already drawing to a close, and that they would probably need to find lodging before continuing their journey the next day. He could not have anticipated them breaking down in the middle of nowhere. It had been at least a mile since he had seen any kind of settlement. Surrounding them was untamed moor, scattered trees, and nothing resembling a building or human habitation.
“That will not do, my good man,” he said firmly.
“My deepest apologies, my lord.” The coachman looked up and down the road on which they were traveling. It was empty. Vincent sighed. What were their options? To await other travelers and hope they would extend assistance? To travel back on foot and see whether they would be able to find shelter for the night?
“Vincent? What’s going on?”
Vincent hurried back to the carriage to help his mother out. He explained the situation to her. Though his mother was of a similar cheerful nature to his sister, unmistakable worry lined her brow.
“Do not be distressed, my lady. If I’m not mistaken, there is an inn less than a mile from where we stand,” the coachman said.
Yet another setback, Vincent thought morosely. How many more do I have to stand? He leaned heavily against the useless carriage, cursing his decision to come on the trip.
“An inn?” he said doubtfully. Once more taking in the desolate surroundings, he knew that whatever passed for an inn in this place was going to be a far cry from what he was used to.
“If we leave now, I think we could make it there before sunset,” his mother said, seemingly undeterred. He didn’t bother disguising the disgust and frustration on his face. The coachman reassured him that he would be able to arrange for the repairs to be made tomorrow morning, and they would be able to set off again after that.
Vincent knew from the life of business the necessity of being able to pivot and proceed with new plans, usually under short notice. It did not, however, make the current situation any more comfortable.
As the coachman had promised, less than a mile down the road, so small that it was not visible from their broken-down carriage, was a small inn. The building had no beauty about it. A two-story structure, the stone walls appeared quite ancient and decrepit. It was a building he would pass by without a second thought under normal circumstances. He approached the door first and let his mother in. Their wait for the innkeeper was not long, for a rotund, cheerful woman, who appeared to be running the establishment, soon arrived to greet them. Taking note of their appearance, she curtsied deferentially.
“We require a night’s lodging,” Vincent told her. “Our carriage has broken down on the road and we will need two rooms overnight and meals.” He paused to take a look around the room where they were standing. It was a poor excuse for a drawing room, with old, yet seemingly clean furniture and nothing in the way of refinement about it. Vincent fought the urge to pull his collar tighter to his skin.
“It will only take a moment to get you settled, my lord, my lady. Please, do make yourself comfortable,” the woman said in her broad accent, gesturing to some chairs and a wooden settle by a table. His mother sat first, which meant he had no reason to hesitate himself. The settlement was hard, but no dust arose when he lowered himself to sit. Small mercy. He regarded the drab room with growing despair. They had only just walked in and not yet seen the bedrooms, but Vincent reckoned it was going to be a long night.
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