Rosa James slowly lifted herself out of her bed, taking care not to make a sound as her feet touched the floor, and she crept over to her closed bedchamber door. She silently put her ear to the door, confirming that not even the earliest rising servants were moving about just yet. They would not begin stirring until just before six o’clock, which gave her almost one hour to do what she had planned. That, she knew, was plenty of time to make her escape.
She grinned, sneaking back across her room and quickly fetching the things she would need for the morning from her wardrobe, tossing aside irrelevant articles of clothing as she searched. When, at last, she had everything she needed, she dressed quickly, then hurriedly but quietly opened her window. It was a quarter of six, leaving her mere minutes. Her maid would be entering her room soon, so she acted quickly.
Quickly, Rosa poked her head out of her open window, narrowing her eyes to see in the dim, predawn light of the summer morning. The grounds were devoid of servants as well, so she tossed her riding boots out of the window, watching as they landed softly on the ground below. She smiled softly at their soundless landing as she gathered up her skirts and reached for the windowsill.
With practiced ease, she hoisted herself onto the window’s ledge, nimbly swinging herself out of her bedchambers and placing her feet on the thick stems of the fully blooming wisteria, which grew alongside the beautiful Virginia Creeper all along the rambling old mansion’s honey-colored stone walls. Then, just as she heard her bedchamber door creaking open, she began her descent down the wisteria, as she had done many times before.
By the time her feet touched the ground, just inches from where her boots had landed, she looked up to see Bridget, her lady’s maid, watching her from the window. The tall, thin maid’s expression was a mixture of amusement and fear, her dark eyes widening as she tucked strands of her dark hair back beneath her white cap. Rosa waved briefly to her to show all was well. Then, she snatched up her boots and ran toward the last remaining shadows of the early morning, pausing only to tug her boots onto her unstockinged feet before heading straight for the stables.
When she reached the stables, she was momentarily taken aback to see a younger man tending to the horses rather than the stable manager. Then, she remembered it was his day off, and the younger man was the best regular stable hand and the manager’s new apprentice. She gave him a small smile, which he returned warmly.
“Good morning, Miss Jones,” he said his expression a mix of confusion and inquisitiveness. “Out for an early morning ride, eh?”
Rosa nodded, trying to appear cool and nonchalant while keeping her eyes carefully away from the stable hands.
“Yes,” she said. “It is nice to ride first thing in the morning. There is nothing like watching the sunrise from horseback.”
The man chuckled, guiding her to the second innermost stall.
“I believe someone here agrees with you,” he said.
Rosa relaxed a little at hearing the fondness with which he spoke of the white mare before them.
“She and I certainly have similar tastes in many things,” she said, stroking the eager horse’s nose as the animal tried to shove aside the stable hand to reach her mistress.
With another soft chuckle, the man bowed to Rosa.
“It looks as though you have everything in control here,” he said, unlatching the gate to the horse’s stall. “I shall leave you ladies to it.”
“Thank you,” she said.
The stable hand nodded, then walked away, whistling to himself. Rosa pulled open the gate, and the mare anxiously trotted out of the stall, nudging Rosa once more.
“Good morning, Quicksilver,” she said, stroking the white horse’s mane. “Would you like some oats before we ride?”
She turned to reach for the box of oats the stable hand must have just prepared before her arrival. But before she could put her hand inside, Quicksilver put her nose beneath Rosa’s arm, pulling it away from the oats and then shaking her head.
Rosa laughed, taking the mare’s head in her hands and kissing her nose.
“All right, all right,” she said, running her hand along the horse’s back to let her know she was fetching the saddle, which was hanging neatly on the wall in Quicksilver’s stall. “Patience, lovely girl.”
The mare stomped her front hooves, but she instantly stilled when Rosa slid the saddle onto her back and began fastening the buckles. When the saddle was snugly in place, Rosa stepped into the stirrup and, after ensuring the stable hand was nowhere in sight, swung her other leg over the mare’s back, straddling her, as only a man should. She spurred the animal gently to urge her out of the stables and in the direction of the Berkshire Downs.
Quicksilver broke into a steady canter as soon as she was clear of the stables. Rosa had to catch her breath so she could laugh because of the sheer thrill she felt as the cool morning air whipped past her face. Within minutes, her cheeks were bright red, and her hair fell loose from the hurried bun into which she had tied it before escaping through her bedchamber window.
It tumbled down her back in dark, wavy strands as the mare continued to pick up speed.And by the time they had reached the edge of the Downs, which ran parallel with the nearby road, her dress was billowing out behind her, as it always did whenever she dared to ride astride, flashing her drawers for anyone traveling down the road to see. But instead of feeling shame or regret, she laughed again and urged Quicksilver to go faster.
Had she made her turn to race her mare in the same direction the road wound, she would have missed it. But since she and the horse had slowed just a little to safely arch around and run alongside the road, she caught the movement out of the corner of her eye. Knowing full well not to take her eyes off the path she and Quicksilver were riding, she quickly glanced from her peripheral vision.
A carriage was rapidly gaining on her, traveling down the narrow road leading to London. She could not see the passengers from her position in the meadow, and at speed, she was moving. But she knew without a doubt that both they and the coach driver could see her.
For a moment, she debated on making a sharp turn and racing through the meadow and back toward her home. Whoever was inside would surely have no trouble spreading rumors, and if they knew or happened to find out whose mansion the meadow surrounded, it would take very little for the whole of the ton to discover exactly who was riding in such an inappropriate fashion. But then she thought of Helena, her dear stepmother, and how angry she was with her. If her father were still alive, she would never have jeopardized her family’s name.
But she was so furious with the woman, she laughed to herself at the notion of the baroness having to deal with such a scandalous report amongst her dear friends within the ton. Perhaps then, the noblemen and women of London would realize that the dear baroness was not the perfect motherly figure she portrayed herself to be. Rosa felt sure her somewhat outrageous behavior would not affect the future prospects of little Emilia. By the time her little half-sister was of an age to begin seeking a husband, everyone would have long forgotten about her elder sister’s indiscretion.
Turning her full attention back toward the clearing ahead of her, she nudged Quicksilver gently, urging the mare to speed up. However, it did not take long for the carriage to draw level and then pass them. But Rosa did not bother glancing in its direction again.
She smiled to herself at the thought that inside might be a duke or duchess, perhaps even two or three, and that they would be watching her in horror. Her anger for her stepmother swirled through her, rising to a fever pitch, and she spurred the mare onward at a fast gallop. Before long, she had once more gained on the coach, passing it with lightning speed, smiling to herself as the image of the baroness’s humiliated face crossed her mind.
“That’s my girl,” she murmured breathlessly to the mare as they raced along. “Good, sweet girl.”
Almost as soon as the carriage was out of sight, it was all but forgotten. Rosa closed her eyes briefly, relishing the rush of wind on her skin and marveling at the moisture falling from her eyes and down her cheeks. It was hot, to be sure, but she soon realized the moisture was not due to perspiration running from her forehead or the wind stinging her eyes—it was from hot tears. She chuckled bitterly to herself. She was not crying because she was secretly ashamed of herself or feared punishment for her disgraceful behavior. It was because she was outraged with her stepmother Helena, and she missed her father so dearly, she thought her heart might break. At that moment, another thought occurred to her. The baroness had not shed a single tear about her father’s death.
Certainly, the woman had followed the proper grieving protocol in the eyes of the ton, but she had not once looked as though she missed her late husband. Rosa felt her father deserved to be properly mourned by the woman who was supposed to have loved him. Without conscious thought, she slowed the mare’s pace, just enough to be able to wipe away the tears that were now blinding her safely.
As she did so, she saw the carriage once again. Gradually, she urged her mare into a gallop again, but not before she noticed something rather interesting. The coach was slowing as though it was nearing its destination, and Rosa wondered if that could be the neighboring estate of Glendenning Park. Her heart ached again, but this time, not for herself. She knew the Dowager Countess of Glendenning lived there alone and that she, too, was grieving.
Her first son, George, had been killed in a riding accident just weeks before, and she had lost her husband just six months before that. She and the countess were very good friends, and Rosa felt a pang of guilt at not having called in on her more frequently recently, especially as they lived so close. But, after all, she knew that, like herself, the countess was deeply in mourning and would probably be glad of some friendly company.
But as it became clear that the carriage was heading for the Glendenning estate, Rosa’s curiosity overrode her guilt. She slowed Quicksilver to a trot, trying to catch a glimpse of the coach’s passenger inconspicuously. Of course, it was a vain attempt, as the meadow was too far away from the road to see anything through the coach’s window.
The glare of the sun obscured her view inside. Even at her slowed pace, she was still moving too fast to see through the bright shimmer on the glass. Although she wondered who was inside heading to the estate, she was also glad that the countess would have some company. She made a mental note to call in on her friend very soon.
She giggled as another thought occurred to her. Whoever was in the carriage would surely mention seeing her furious ride across the meadow. She knew well that her friend the dowager would say nothing to Helena about it.
The countess knew how unhappy Rosa was with her stepmother, and, thankfully, she and the baroness were barely passing acquaintances. However, she knew the countess’s servants might gossip about it and that word might eventually get back to the baroness through her own family’s household staff.
If it did, how would the baroness punish her? She was a great one for punishing Rosa, even when she had not done anything wrong. But as Rose turned Quicksilver slowly back toward the manor and reluctantly began heading back toward the stables, she realized she cared very little.
After all, she thought bitterly, what punishment could her cold stepmother dole out that was worse than forcing her to marry some decrepit old duke? The vile thought made the idea of being found out well worth it simply to see Helena’s horrified expression.
Harry Glendenning groaned as his eyes cracked open. He winced immediately as the early morning sunlight invaded his bleary vision. Though the sun’s rays were barely luminous at such an early hour, they might as well have been brightly lit carriage headlamps beaming straight into his eyes, slicing into his tender, throbbing head like knives of flame.
On top of that, each bump of the carriage wheel as it ran over the rutted road made his delicate stomach lurch, and he prayed he would not need to order the driver to halt so he could descend and empty its contents before he reached Glendenning Park. Then again, he thought, holding his breath, and squeezing his eyes closed against another wave of nausea, perhaps that would be best; otherwise, I risk shaming myself in front of Mother. But he simply did not have the energy to do so.
Truthfully, he knew his mother was unlikely to be ashamed of him for being somewhat hungover from his boisterous activities the night before.
Though he had consumed copious amounts of alcohol, it had all been in innocent, harmless fun, along with his two oldest friends. Lord Barty Deane, heir to the Duchy of Evesham, and the Earl of Twelvetrees, Mackenzie Carlton, affectionately known as Mac, had simply wished to help him celebrate his return to England from Russia. And celebrate, they certainly had, until just a few hours prior. He had enjoyed himself, as far as he could remember, at any rate. But now, as he sat alone, feeling exhausted and ill in the moving carriage, he thought again about the reason for his return to England, and his heart ached.
George, his elder brother and former reigning Duke of Glendenning, was dead. He had died while Harry was in Russia in a tragic riding accident. The news had come as a terrible shock, but also with a revelation that he, as the younger son and brother of the late earl, had never expected to hear in his entire life.
The loss of his brother was difficult enough to bear, and even his rambunctious, though innocent, drinking party with his friends had not blotted out the pain. But more than that, George’s death meant that Harry was now the Earl of Glendenning. That was why, behind his hangover, a new headache throbbed; this one caused by the thought of his enjoyable, fulfilling life being suddenly permanently diverted in a direction in which it was never meant to go.
In the letter his mother had written to him informing him of his brother’s death, she had been as gentle and empathetic as she could be about the situation Harry now faced. And his friends had been very understanding and supportive the evening before, despite not being able to truly understand his plight, as their titles were their respective birthrights. But the nearer he drew to his family’s countryside home, the less Harry found himself prepared to think about the earldom.
He sighed, rubbing vainly at his throbbing temples, praying that the alcohol headache would ease somewhat before the coach reached Glendenning Park.
With another moan of protest, Harry repositioned himself on the carriage’s bench and tried to look out of the window. At first, it was difficult to watch the scenery whizzing by without suffering more dizziness and nausea. But then the passing countryside became more familiar to him, and he felt both nostalgia and the bitter weight of his pending responsibilities.
In the distance, he could see the sprawling roofs of Glendenning Park, his family’s country home, where his mother anxiously waited for him to take up the mantle of the earl. His fondest memories also waited there, along with his new burden, so the sight caused him mixed emotions. Then, he saw coming up immediately adjacent to the road, another place full of memories; the neighboring estate.
With a sigh, Harry looked across the meadow at the large, inviting mansion where he had spent so much time in his younger years. It was the manor where Amanda, the first and, to date, the only woman he had ever loved, once lived. He had been madly in love with her, and he had been prepared to give her the world if only she would agree to be his wife.
For months Harry had pursued her, hoping she would give him a chance he so desperately sought, as they began spending more time together. Yet no such fate had ever come to pass; she had never considered him a suitor. And no matter how hard he had tried in the years since, he had been unable to forgive her for it. And now, seeing her old home for the first time in many years, his heart felt the pain afresh, so profoundly that he thought it might drown him right there, in the coach.
But before he could fall too deeply into the despair threatening to swallow him whole, something caught his attention; a fast-moving blur was racing across the misty meadow next to him, but he could not make out what it could be.
He managed to focus his vision with great effort, but he still had to rub his eyes to assure himself that he did not see things. When he finally identified the speeding object, his mouth fell open, and he stared dumbly for several moments.
There, parallel to the road, racing across the green turf of the meadow so fast that it seemed as if the horse’s hooves floated above the ground, rode a woman on a white horse. The dress she wore was plain, light-brown, and for a moment, he thought it must be one of the maids or the daughter of one of the estate workers. No lady would ride so daringly, surely? But the long dark hair which flowed out behind her and bounced softly off the gleaming haunches of the white horse as the pair bounded along, easily matching the speed of his carriage, looked strangely familiar. Amanda…?
The coach jolted, causing him to smack his head on the window, against which he only just then realized it had been pressed. He rubbed his head, staring fearfully at the rider as though believing Amanda, or whoever it was, had heard the impact. That was foolish, of course, as she could not possibly have heard such a small tap with the wind rushing in her ears as she galloped along, a picture of freedom. But, just as it was foolish for him to believe it could be, Amanda was riding that beautiful horse. She would belong married by now, so it could not be her. Besides, this woman seemed a little more petite in build. And Amanda, being the perfect lady she was, would certainly never ride astride in such a scandalous fashion.
It must be one of the estate worker’s daughters, he thought to himself with a surprising sense of disappointment. However, it was still highly indecorous for a servant or their daughter to ride in such a manner.
Even servants and their family members were expected to carry themselves with a modicum of propriety. Yet, that was not what Harry thought as he watched the young woman. It was not like him to try to steal inappropriate peeks at women, but the rider’s booted legs were almost fully exposed as her skirts flew out behind her.
She was clearly thin and petite and, though he could not see her face, it was not hard for him to imagine her features as being very lovely. And what he could see of her appeared to be so beautiful, a vision of liberty herself, as she raced the horse across the meadow with obvious grace and expertise. Even though she reminded him of the woman who had broken his heart, Harry could not help giving her a soft smile, one he knew she could not see. He continued to gaze at the enchanting sight, wondering who on earth she could be.
All too soon, the carriage rolled past the meadow, slowing almost to a crawl as the young woman passed from view. Harry shook his head to release himself from the spell under which the horsewoman had put him. The gesture made him dizzy, but his elation at seeing such a beautiful sight prevented the dizziness from reaching his previously queasy stomach.
He ran his hands through his hair, knowing it likely did little to alter the disheveled appearance that would surely earn him many questions from his mother. But again, he knew she would not think ill of him, so he simply rested his head against the back of the bench as the coach, at last, turned up the long, winding driveway leading to Glendenning Park.
He must have dozed off for a moment because when next he opened his eyes, the carriage was just stopping in front of his family’s country home. He opened the coach door and disembarked, a bit unsteadily, leaning against the carriage to the right himself as he closed the door. Then, having been expecting him, the butler greeted him at the front door of the mansion, smiling at him with warm but sad eyes.
“Good morning, Lord Glendenning,” he said, bowing formally. “It is good to have you home.”
Harry surprised himself by embracing the butler, tears suddenly springing to his eyes.
“How are you, Tobias?” he asked, releasing the astonished butler and blinking away the tears.
The man sighed.
“It has been very bleak here as of late,” he said, clenching his jaw briefly. “Your mother will be very glad of your arrival. She is expecting you now, in her parlor. She has chosen to have tea and cakes served there rather than breakfast. However, if you wish to have something more substantial, my lord, I shall request it at once.”
Harry’s stomach rolled at the thought of food, but he did his best to mask his discomfort. He shook his head, carefully and slowly, giving a grimacing smile.
“Tea and cakes will be fine,” he said. “I suppose I’d best go and see her now.”
The butler bowed again, gesturing for Harry to follow him inside. It felt strange to be led inside his own home as a guest, but not as strange to be inside the family mansion again after several years away. Nothing much had changed since his last visit home; the same portraits of earls past and their wives and offspring decorated the half-paneled walls all the way up the wide, curving staircase; the same ancient black furniture filled the halls, and the same crystal vases adorned the surfaces, though Harry noticed that none contained the usual extravagant displays of hothouse flowers.
Elsewhere, the precious, antique tapestries, showing hunting scenes and long-dead kings and queens who had so fascinated him as a child, hung in exactly the same places as they always had, as though they had not been touched since last he was home. But the sense of emptiness was oppressive, as though the mansion’s very walls were affected by the absence of his father and brother. It would not be difficult to imagine that the windows were the house’s many eyes and that they were shedding tears of grief at having lost such beloved gentlemen.
The thought made his heartache again, and he had to look away, focusing on the back of Tobias’s head as they headed to his mother’s parlor.
The dowager countess was already waiting for her son when the butler announced his arrival. She rushed into his arms, which he barely managed to open before she leapt into them.
“Harry, darling,” she said, a sobbing chuckle escaping her as she pressed her head against his chest. “It is so good to have you home.”
Harry held his mother for a moment, allowing her to feel his comfort as she composed herself. Then, he stepped back, kissing her damp cheeks and wiping the tears that streaked them with a handkerchief.
“It is wonderful to see you again, Mother,” he said. “I have missed you.”
The two stared at each other intently for a moment, neither needing to say anything. They could both feel the grief of their family’s great losses, and it was clear without words how much they both missed their departed loved ones. But it was equally clear that neither of them wanted to say as much aloud. So, after a moment, when the countess had taken the handkerchief offered to her by her son, Harry took her hand and led her to her seat, sitting just in front of her on a stool.
“Business is going very well overseas,” he said, knowing that hearing of his successes would take his mother’s mind to a more pleasant place.
Instantly, she lit up, as he had hoped she would. She beamed at him, gesturing for the maids who had just entered with trays filled with tea things and cakes to place them alongside them on a low table. She then beckoned for Harry to help himself, and she poured the tea, looking fondly at him all the while.
“I am glad to hear it,” she said. “Were you able to secure some ties there so that you will not need to travel back there unless you wish to?”
Harry nodded, smiling as he sipped his tea. He knew his mother would not want him to leave again once he had returned. But truthfully, he was in no rush to return overseas either, even if he was terrified of his new duties.
“Yes,” he said. “I might need to return for a few weeks. Once a year, at most. But apart from that, I can run things there through written correspondence with my new partners.”
The dowager countess clapped her hands. Then, she folded them in her lap and looked at her son, her expression growing serious.
“That is wonderful news,” she said warmly. “That will give you the time you need to settle into your role as earl.”
Harry shuddered involuntarily, putting down his treats and rubbing his hands together.
“I do not know if any amount of time will be enough, Mother,” he said honestly.
The countess smiled with fond sympathy.
“A wife would be of great help to you, my dear,” she said. “She could help you to run the estate while you focus on more important tasks.”
Harry bit his lip. He said nothing of the horsewoman he had spotted earlier, but he instantly thought of her. But he did not wish to discuss wives and marriage and the earldom just then. Instead, he beamed at his mother, taking a long sip of tea to help him switch his thoughts, and then smiled at her.
“How are the Jones family next door faring, Mother?” he asked.
The dowager countess raised an eyebrow, but she nodded with understanding.
“It is just the baroness and two of her daughters living there now,” she said. “And they are still in mourning for the baron.”
Harry nodded, his heart racing. If two daughters were living there, then could it truly have been Amanda he’d seen?
“I heard the news of the baron’s death,” he said. “It is tragic that so many misfortunes have fallen so close to one another.”
The countess nodded, her lip trembling.
“It is,” she said, sipping her tea. Then, she looked at him and smiled.
“You have not forgotten that you are escorting me to a ball tomorrow evening, have you?” she asked.
Harry winced. In his drunken, rowdy state the previous night, he had forgotten that his mother’s letter had mentioned an upcoming ball she wished him to attend with her. He wanted to protest, as he had only just returned home. But she looked so hopeful, and he could see just how strained and haggard the stress and grief of her recent losses had made her. So, instead, he smiled and nodded.
“I have not,” he answered. “And I am very much looking forward to it,” he lied.
As the sun slowly approached its ten o’clock position in the sky, Rosa bade Quicksilver an affectionate farewell, tucking a few coins into the hands of the stable boy in the hope he would not be the one to give away her secret.
Of course, she knew that more money or threats of dismissal from Helena would quickly loosen his lips. But at least, she thought, she could buy his loyalty long enough to make her punishment less grim or perhaps even irrelevant. Though, truthfully, she did not care what punishment her stepmother might have in store for her should she find out about her stepdaughter’s frequent early morning rides.
She reached the honey-colored mansion and climbed nimbly back up the wisteria, the way she had come. But, none to her surprise, Bridget was waiting just inside her window, taking her mistress’s hands to help her climb back inside. Rosa’s skirts were dirty, and she dared not leave her bedchambers looking as she did. But before she could say a word, Bridget turned from her and fetched a fresh, dark-green dress from the bed, smiling impishly at Rosa.
“I knew you would need to freshen up, Miss Rosa,” she said, winking at her mistress. “Would you like me to help you change now?”
Rosa briefly hugged her maid, then nodded.
“Yes, I believe that would be best,” she said. “And then, I think we should…”
“Have some tea?” Bridget finished, stepping aside and gesturing to a tray laden with tea things as well as an assortment of cakes. “Your wish is my command.”
Rosa giggled, squeezing Bridget’s shoulder gently.
“You are too good to me,” she said. “I fear you risk too much by doing so much for me.”
Bridget snickered and shrugged.
“To have a mistress who is so free-spirited and kind is well worth any risk,” she said. “Now, come. Let us get you cleaned up before your stepmother comes looking for you.”
Rosa laughed again, then nodded. Next, she hurried over to her washbasin, quickly scrubbing the smudges of dirt from her face, arms, and neck. Then, she rushed back to where Bridget stood with her fresh dress, quickly helping the maid get her into it. Bridget then quickly tidied Rosa’s hair, picking out a few wisps of straw, then seated Rosa in a chair beside the window. Bridget had closed it quietly but now made a great show of reopening it for the servants who were scurrying about the grounds below. And, at last, she served the tea, joining Rosa in a cup at her mistress’s insistence.
“May I ask,” Bridget said, setting aside her cup and looking at Rosa with surprising seriousness, “why is it that you continue to steal out of a morning, knowing you will eventually be found out?”
Rosa sighed, looking down at her teacup.
“Because nothing could be worse than being forced to go to London for the Season,” she said. “Not even one of her punishments.”
Bridget nodded. Her face was sympathetic, but her eyes indicated that her mind was working furiously.
“I understand how distressing a thought that must be, Miss,” she said thoughtfully. “But might there not be something favorable for you in doing as the baroness demands?”
Rosa looked at her maid in bewilderment.
“She is not simply expecting me to marry, Bridget,” she said, a lump forming in her throat. “She has … certain guidelines which I must follow in choosing a husband.”
Bridget raised her eyebrow and smirked.
“Guidelines?” she asked. “What more could she ask than for you to marry one of the many respectable gentlemen of the ton?”
Rosa laughed bitterly at that.
“If it were that simple, I might have a chance at finding a man I actually like,” she said. “But Lady Helena demands that I choose a rich suitor with a high status and title, preferably a duke. She claims that is how it must be, to save our family’s fortunes.”
It was Bridget’s turn to stare dumbly at her mistress. Rosa felt a pang of guilt. She knew Bridget must be thinking how lucky her mistress would be to find a potential husband with any of the attributes her stepmother demanded.
“Would that I should be so lucky,” Bridget murmured, her eyes widening as her words confirmed Rosa’s thoughts. “Forgive me, Miss Rosa.”
Rosa reached out and patted her maid’s hand.
“There is nothing to forgive, Bridget,” she said kindly. “You are absolutely right. Any young lady would be lucky to find a man with even one of the traits my stepmother has listed. And a married daughter is better than an unmarried daughter, no matter her station or new title.”
Bridget nodded, biting her lip.
“Do you think you could perhaps disobey her?” she asked. “After all, she is the baroness, but she cannot physically force you to get married. Nor can she force one of her perfect gentlemen to ask for your hand in marriage.” She paused, winking. “And, as you and I know, you are very good at evading her rules.”
Rosa gave the maid a weak smile and shook her head.
“I wish it were so,” she said, sighing. “But it is not just my future or the family’s continued wealth that I must consider. Emilia shall grow into a woman one day, and she too will seek a good match. So I must think about how my decisions now will affect her future, as well.”
Bridget shook her head, her smile fading in sympathy for Rosa.
“Oh, Miss Rosa,” she said, moving closer to her mistress. “That is too heavy a burden to put on a person so young.”
Rosa nodded, her head feeling heavy as she sighed again.
“It is,” she said. “But Emilia is very dear to me. I cannot continue to entertain my fancies of marriage for true love if it means putting her future happiness and well-being at risk. I have not always been practical, and I do break the rules. But this is no longer simply about me. I must do what will, eventually, be best for little Emilia. It is what Father would want; I am sure of it.”
“I just do not think it should be up to you to carry all this responsibility on your own,” she repeated.
Rosa smiled sweetly at her maid.
“Well, it is the daughter’s duty to ensure her family’s financial security,” she said. “Amanda has already done her part. And now, the time has come for me to do mine. Especially since Father left things in such a parlous state. It is hard for me to imagine him ever doing such a thing, but since he did, I must do what is right to rectify things.”
Bridget bit her lip, remaining silent. Rosa thought her maid must be feeling sadness for her mistress, so she put on her best bright smile and squeezed Bridget’s hand.
“Besides, you and I will be together in London,” she said. “Things could be far worse, could they not?”
At this, Bridget seemed to relax. She nodded, returning Rosa’s smile.
“You must promise to tell me every single detail of all the grand events you attend,” she said.
“How could I not?” she asked.
They finished their tea shortly thereafter, and Rosa rose from her chair. She glanced at her wardrobe, then gave Bridget an impish smile.
“You were so kind as to help me into a fresh dress,” she said. “Would you be too angry with me if I asked you to help me again, into my proper riding habit this time?”
Bridget’s eyes lit up, and she winked at Rosa.
“I would have been worried if you did not ask such a thing,” she said.
The two women laughed, setting about getting Rosa changed once more.
Once ready, Rosa smiled to herself, ready to see her sweet little half-sister. Emilia brought her copious joy, even on her darkest days. But suddenly, Rosa noticed Bridget’s face had slackened once more, and the maid appeared even more troubled.
“What’s the matter, Bridget?” Rosa asked, reaching out to touch her maid’s back gently.
Bridget sighed heavily, averting her gaze.
“There is more than just one reason why I dislike the idea of you marrying, Miss Rosa,” she said. “I worry about what will become of me after you find a husband.”
Rosa tilted her head, momentarily confused by her maid’s question.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
The maid shifted her weight as though suddenly uncomfortable.
“Where will I go?” she asked, her voice rising in pitch to an emotional whine. “Will I be forced to find another position elsewhere?”
Rosa could not help but laugh, instantly giving her maid a gentle, reassuring smile.
“Oh, heavens, no,” she said, putting her arm around the woman. “There is not a chance of my marrying anyone unless they agree to you coming with me, Bridget. It is unthinkable that I should ever lose you.”
Bridget relaxed instantly, beaming at her mistress.
“What a relief,” she said. “I cannot imagine ever working for anyone but you.”
Rosa hugged her maid, thrilled that Bridget felt as close to her as she felt to the maid. Then, she moved away once more, giving the maid another sly grin.
“I think I shall spend the morning with Emilia,” she said, her enthusiasm instantly increasing at the thought of the little girl. “To the devil with Madame Helena this morning.”
Bridget laughed so hard, she had to cover her mouth to quiet the sound. She took a moment to catch her breath before opening the door to Rosa’s bedchambers.
“Very well, Miss Rosa,” she said, exaggerating the gesture of showing her mistress out of the door. “I shall inform her majesty of your decision.”
The two women laughed again, hugging once more before Rosa made her way to the nursery.
The nursery had been the childhood home of many generations of Joneses, along with Rosa herself. Many of her old toys were still there, even long after she and Amanda had grown up. Amanda had chosen to dispose of many of her old toys, but Rosa had wanted to keep most of hers. She hoped, after all, to have her own children one day, and she thought they might enjoy the same things she had loved as a child. She had never thought she would gain a little sister so late in life, but now that little Emilia was there, she could not imagine life without her.
Emilia was sitting, still in her dressing gown, playing with some of Rosa’s old straw dolls. She also had some blocks nearby, with which she had constructed in a triangle shape, something she had recently learned to make while playing with Rosa. As soon as the little girl saw her older sister enter the room, she abandoned her dolls and blocks, grinning as she knocked over the triangle to rush over to Rosa, her tiny arms spread wide.
“G’morning, Rosa,” she said, bouncing up and down in a wordless request to be picked up.
Rosa laughed, scooping the toddler up into her arms.
“Good morning, beautiful girl,” she said, kissing the child on her cheeks.
“Wanna play?” Emilia asked, pointing back to her now demolished triangle. She looked puzzled for a moment, then she giggled. “Oopsie.”
Rosa nodded, giggling along with her little sister.
“I certainly do, darling,” she said. “What shall we play first?”
But before Emilia could respond, Bridget hurried in through the door. She looked at Rosa with wide, apologetic eyes.
“The baroness requests that you join her for breakfast immediately, Miss Rosa,” she said.
Emilia gasped, putting a tiny fist on her hip.
“Tell Mama no,” she said, so defiantly that Rosa had to chew her cheek to keep from laughing aloud.
She embraced the toddler, giving her lots of kisses on her cheeks and forehead and on her mop of blonde curls.
“Do not fret, darling,” she said, gently putting the child down. “I shall return very soon to play with you.”
Emilia pouted, but she did not protest further. Instead, she nodded silently, giving Rosa’s legs a tight squeeze before stepping back toward her toys.
“See you soon, Rosa,” she said, giving a brave smile.
Rosa’s heart squeezed. She blew a kiss to her sister.
“See you soon, my lovely,” she said, waving to the toddler.
As she left the room, she heard Bridget tell Emilia that she would go and fetch her nursemaid. She also heard Emilia protest and ask Bridget to stay and help her dress and then play with her. That happened often, which was likely the reason why the nursemaid had not yet been in to dress the little girl.
The nursemaid was a kind, but gruff woman, and Rosa could understand why Emilia, at just four, preferred the company of Bridget. Her heart ached, as she would much rather play with her sister than dine with her stepmother. But as she had been summoned, she had no choice. With great reluctance, she made her way to the dining room.
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