About the book
An enemy from the past is all it takes to change things around...
Governess Elizabeth Peaton has never known true love until she finally meets her employer’s melancholy brother. Not knowing how to deal with the unfamiliar and intense emotions he ignites within her, she lets herself burn in his fire.
Still haunted by his fiancé's unsolved murder, Gerard Watton, the Duke of Hadminster, has thrown himself into his business. However, that changes when his sister's captivating governess brings forth feelings he thought himself unable to experience ever again.
But as tension and feelings run wild, someone threatens to snatch his happiness away from him a second time.
When someone tries to poison Elizabeth, the crippling fear of the past repeating itself resurfaces, and Gerard is hard-pressed to act fast. For one is an accident, two is a tragedy, but three is murder...
“Ferme la fenêtre, s’il vous plait.” Elizabeth said calmly, reaching out to grasp the back of the young boy’s jacket as he leaned out the large upper floor window.
“I don’t want to,” the young Marquess replied.
“En Français, My Lord,” Elizabeth chided gently.
“Je…don’t want to.”
“And how will you learn French if you are too shy to practice it?” Elizabeth asked, getting up from her chair to hoist him physically away from the window. Before she closed it, she glanced out at the rolling green of the estate. The air was crisp that morning, summer was coming to an end, but the warming sun shone cheerily in ignorance of this.
“I am not too shy. I just don’t remember.” The yellow-haired boy slouched back into his chair.
Elizabeth smiled over her shoulder at him, knowing it wasn’t true. He could translate from French into English quite well, and he showed that he understood her when she herself spoke French. But when it came to actually speaking it himself, he pretended he didn’t know how.
“It’s all right if your pronunciation is not perfect at first. That’s why we practice. I won’t laugh at you.” She’d told him all this before, of course. The five-year-old was vivacious and bright, but just as bashful as he had been on Elizabeth’s first day here ten months ago.
He shook his head. “Can’t we do sums now instead?”
Elizabeth was about to begrudgingly relent when Brutus, one of the mistress’s beloved hounds, walked past the door to the library where she and the Marquess were having his lessons. The sight of the gentle giant of a dog gave her a flash of inspiration.
“My Lord, I have an idea,” she said, and whistled gently to the dog, who came at once into the room, bounding happily up to the young boy. Elizabeth handed the small book of French children’s verse to her pupil. “I will sit in the far end of the room and read. While I am not paying attention, I want you to read these poems aloud to Brutus. Surely you can trust him not to judge your beginner’s attempts.”
The boy laughed, his pearly baby teeth flashing as he rubbed the dog’s head. “Read to the dog! That’s silly.”
“Yes, it is, but you leave me no other choice. Can I trust you to really do it?” she asked as she got up, smoothing the front of her skirts with her hands.
“You won’t spy?” the boy asked.
“I solemnly promise that I will not spy on you if you promise to do your best for ten minutes. Brutus shall tell me if you do not.”
The Marquess laughed, flipping open the book of poems. “All right. I will do it. But not until you leave. What if I don’t understand the words?”
Elizabeth smiled. “That’s all right. Just sound the words out as well as you can. We can translate together later.”
She smoothed the child’s hair with her hand and winked at him before crossing to the opposite end of the room and opening a book across her lap. As she began to read, she heard him quietly begin to test the first few French words to the patient hound.
The manor was still and quiet that morning, but it was early. The Duke and Duchess of Stonehill were a young couple yet, with their son Thomas and a new baby on the way, and their home was often bustling with company and activity.
Just as she was settling in to her reading, a gentle knock came to the doorframe and Elizabeth looked up to see the kindly face of Dorothy, the Duchess’ maid and Elizabeth’s only real friend. Noticing Elizabeth sitting alone, the woman approached her.
“Lord Limingrose giving you the run-around again this morning?” the woman asked quietly, grinning.
“He is too bashful to practice his French in front of me, so he’s reading to Brutus, instead.”
Dorothy laughed, wiping her hands on her apron. “Ah, you see? That’s why Her Grace loves you so much. You can think on your feet. May I come in?”
“Of course. Please.” Elizabeth said.
Dorothy had been the Duchess’ maid since the Duchess was a child. Dorothy had such a maternal spirit about her, such a friendly warmth and disarming humor that it seemed to make formality impossible. To know Dorothy was to befriend her.
“Can’t you just feel the excitement in the air? It’s as if the whole world is holding its breath for the new babe’s arrival.” Dorothy went on, settling herself comfortably on a chair.
“It’ll be soon now, won’t it?”
“Yes, it can be any time now. Though it may be another couple of weeks yet, too. She’s hoping for sooner rather than later, I think. The poor dear, always such a light and active thing. Confinement may as well be imprisonment in her eyes.”
“I was surprised she and the Duke had not taken to the country for these last few weeks, at least. I should think that plenty of rest and quiet would be welcome before the arrival of a new babe.”
“Oh no, she wouldn’t leave London for anything. She needs gossip and social calls like she needs air to breathe.”
“I suppose I must go back and check on him,” Elizabeth said, nodding in the direction of her pupil.
“Oh, right. Of course. Don’t let me hold you up,” Dorothy said, hopping up from the chair. “But I was sure that there was something I meant to tell you…” The woman put her hands on her generous hips and looked around the room as if a clue might be hidden among the decorations of the room.
Elizabeth smiled patiently.
“Oh, yes! You’ve heard, I imagine, that the Duke of Hadminster is coming to visit?”
“I…no. I hadn’t heard that.”
“Her Grace’s older brother. We haven’t seen him in ages, of course. He’s kept to himself ever since…well, that’s a story for another time. He’s coming to see his new niece or nephew and, as he will be the godfather, he seems to intend to stay for some weeks. Two months at least, is what I’ve heard.”
“Well, what is one more Duke in a manor this large?” Elizabeth said lightly, trying to ignore Dorothy’s not-so-subtle invitation to gossip about that ‘story for another time’.
Dorothy laughed. “Aye, you’re right there. Well, hurry along then. You aren’t paid to stand about talking to me!” she said with a wink.
Elizabeth watched her go, then closed her book and walked back towards the Marquess.
“Well?” she asked.
“I like this better. May I always practice with Brutus?” he asked, handing the book back to her.
“Hopefully, in time, you will feel just as comfortable practicing aloud with human beings,” she said with a slight chuckle. “But we can build confidence this way first. Now, shall we begin on your sums?”
As the morning faded into afternoon, the child was released from his lessons. He wanted to try his luck at fishing the pond at the back of the estate, so Elizabeth packed up her drawing pencils and put on a bonnet. It was an odd thing, she thought, to be essentially beholden to so small a master. Governess was a title that carried some weight with the child, yes, but as long as he applied himself well during his lessons, his afternoons were more or less free, and she was there only to follow him and keep him from harm.
The breeze that blew across the estate carried with it the faint sweetness of late summer roses. Elizabeth held her hand to her bonnet as she and Lord Limingrose crossed the garden to reach the pond. Elizabeth had been working for the Duke and Duchess of Stonehill for almost a year, and yet she felt that she would never get used to the grandness of the place. Walking across the garden felt like walking through a painting. It was somehow blasphemous to smudge that beautiful landscape with her own presence. She, who had been raised within the dingy walls of a city orphanage, with no name, no history, no future.
She had been lucky to scrape together a respectable education, thanks to the patronage of an old clergyman who had recognized her intelligence in her orphanage days. But even though she was grateful every day for the opportunities that she had been given, she had not yet fully resigned herself to a life of being an eternal outsider in the world she now found herself in.
She made a place for herself on the grass and watched the boy cast a line into the little fishing pond that the Duke had built and stocked especially for his son. As she watched him, Elizabeth found herself yearning once more for the company of her own people. At the orphanage, and then at school, she had always been surrounded by many people her own age and class. The spacious, empty rooms of the manor and the vast estate still bewildered her, these ten months later.
In Dorothy she had been glad to find a friend, but at the same time, Dorothy was old enough to be Elizabeth’s mother. The house maids were always too busy to give a governess any mind. So, even though she lived in the manor of one of the most popular couples of London society, with people always coming and going, Elizabeth found herself wilting under the strain of a terrible loneliness.
She sighed, casting off her bonnet and putting those dreary thoughts aside. It was a beautiful day, and she had so very much to be thankful for. Determined to have a pleasant afternoon, she picked up her sketchbook and drawing pencils and began to attempt, for the thousandth time, to capture the graceful lines of the garden.
“Miss Peaton! Look!” the boy cried. Elizabeth looked up to see the scales of a quite large fish flashing in the sunlight at the end of the small boy’s line.
“Well done, My Lord!” she cheered, clapping her hands.
“May we eat him?” he called back.
Elizabeth laughed. “I’m sure Cook has already got dinner half-ready by now. How about you let this one go?”
“Father would let me.” The child sulked.
“And do I look like your father?” she teased.
This made him laugh and he released the fish back into the pond with a splash. The glittering water dazzled Elizabeth’s eyes for a moment before she looked down at the sketchbook in her lap. She flipped through the pages absently. Page after page was filled with carefully outlined garden paths and quiet interiors. There were no sketches of people among those still lifes and botanicals. Her sketchbook was as silent and lonely as she was.
In the evenings, Elizabeth wished she had more to do. The daylight hours were always full of work, but as the sun set, the shadowy corners of the vast manor seemed to creep under her very skin and there was little she could do to keep her mind off it.
She sat at her writing desk, a candle illuminating the little space, and wrote and re-wrote lesson plans for the Marquess, but the truth was that having only one pupil was quite simple, and she could have done just as well with him without all this meticulous planning.
She reached for a fresh sheet of paper automatically, thinking idly to herself that she would write a letter. To someone. Anyone.
“Dear Mother,” she began, in her most careful script. Elizabeth had never been the type to keep a diary, but she catalogued her days in her own way, by writing letters she would never send, to a mother she had never known.
The faint scratch of her quill as it methodically moved across the paper broke up the silence of the room enough that she felt her shoulders relaxing as she continued to write. She had filled two pages when a familiar one-two knock came to her door. Relieved by the intrusion, Elizabeth got up to greet Dorothy.
“Still up?” Dorothy asked.
“It’s early yet.” Elizabeth grinned, remembering Dorothy’s hinted promise of gossip earlier.
“I was about to have some tea in my room. If you wouldn’t rather keep your own company this evening, you’re more than welcome to join me.” The older woman seemed to understand her loneliness, and Elizabeth was reminded once again to be grateful for her many blessings. She nodded and followed Dorothy to her slightly larger quarters.
Dorothy’s room had a larger window and faintly yellowing wallpaper on the walls. Crocheted lace hung over the arms of her two chairs and a jar of violets sat in the middle of her nightstand. It was still a simple room befitting a servant, but it carried with it the air of a woman who was proud of her life’s work.
Everything was neat as a pin, and small decorative flourishes here and there made it one of the most comfortable rooms in the house. A pot of tea steamed welcomingly on the small table between the chairs.
“I really must sit down.” Dorothy began. “My feet are aching like anything today. I must be getting too old for running all over the house all day.”
Elizabeth smiled gently. Dorothy did not like to gossip, at least that’s what she assured anyone who would listen. To that end, she couldn’t abide just launching into the story that she really wanted to tell. Instead, she would sprinkle the information she had throughout a larger conversation, usually about her aches and pains.
“You’re not old, Miss Dorothy. Why, you look younger every day.”
Dorothy waved her off, pouring tea for both of them before settling down in her chair.
“Tell me, does the Marquess not know about his uncle coming? He hasn’t said a word about it. Should he not be excited?” Elizabeth asked, hoping to be spared some of Dorothy’s small talk.
“Ah, poor lad. I’m afraid he doesn’t likely have many happy memories with his uncle.” The older woman said, taking a sip of her tea and apparently finding it too hot because she set it back down on the table after.
“Is he…pardon me for asking, but…is he not very nice, then?”
Dorothy sighed. “It isn’t that. I knew him as a boy, you know. He was much like his nephew in many ways. Bright. Active. A bit shy but easy to please. But the Marquess hasn’t had a chance to know the Duke we knew and loved before the accident.” With this, Dorothy picked up her tea again and took a slow sip, leaving that tantalizing hint hanging in the air.
“Accident?” Elizabeth asked quietly, hoping to sound casual. None of this was any of her business, she was well aware. But the way that Dorothy was approaching the subject all askance and carefully, seemed to imply that there was an interesting story she was wanting to tell.
“Well, between us, accident isn’t the word at all. It was murder.”
The tea Elizabeth had been swallowing caught in her throat and she coughed. “M-murder?” she managed to get out between coughs. “Did he…?”
“Oh, heavens no! The Duke wouldn’t hurt a worm. Gentle as a lamb, that boy. Always has been. Mercy me, I did give the wrong impression there, didn’t I?” Dorothy laughed.
Elizabeth scoffed, catching her breath and testing another sip of tea. “So, what happened?”
“Well, that’s just the thing, isn’t it? No one really knows exactly what happened or why. All we know is that the gentleman was madly in love, engaged to be married, happy as a cricket, and then his fiancée was gone.”
“Gone?” Elizabeth asked suspiciously.
“She was found dead in the garden. Poisoned, they say.”
The room fell silent save for the sound of Elizabeth tapping her fingernail against the handle of the teacup in her hand. It sounded like something out of a cheap novel. The image of a beautiful lady lying motionless on a bed of soft grass, surrounded by lush blooms, filled Elizabeth’s mind and made her stomach sour.
“How dreadful,” was all she could say after a moment.
“They suspected the Duke at first, if you can believe it. He was the person closest to her, I suppose. But in the end, no one really thought it was him. He was so deeply in love with the lady. Her death shattered him. He hasn’t been the same since. Ach, will you look at this workbasket!” Dorothy suddenly cried, reaching for a basket overflowing with mending to be done. As if ashamed of herself for telling such a salacious story, she hurriedly withdrew one of the Duchess’ silk stockings and began to mend a hole in the heel.
“I’ve never heard anyone speak of him since I’ve been here,” Elizabeth said. “Does he not visit?”
“He used to come around quite often. He always doted on his little sister; they were thick as thieves growing up. But as the years have passed and his lover’s killer has never been found he’s…oh, I don’t know. He’s changed.” Dorothy did not look up from her work.
“You’ll please excuse me for being insensitive but…has not anyone considered that perhaps there was no killer. Perhaps she…” Elizabeth shrugged one shoulder. “You know…?”
“Oh no,” Dorothy shook her head. “Of course, the possibility was looked into by the proper authorities, but no one who knew Lady Christine would believe for a moment that she would do that to herself. She was a vibrant young thing, beautiful and rich, about to marry a Duke who positively worshiped her. No, she had no reason to end it that way.”
“I see,” Elizabeth said, letting the subject drop. Though she held doubts in her mind. Murder by poison by some shadowy figure who could not be found even these many years later seemed unlikely. The possibility that a young lady may harbor some secret pain that became too much to bear seemed simpler.
“To tell the truth,” Dorothy said, lowering her voice. “I think that Her Grace has been relieved at her brother staying away. He’s not the gentleman he used to be. He was once the most sought-after gentleman in society. As charming and friendly as he was striking to look at. But the tragedy killed not only his lover, but something inside of himself as well. He became cold and withdrawn, prone to snapping at servants and even his peers.”
“If Lord Limingrose hasn’t mentioned his uncle, it’s because he dreads the gentleman’s visit. As someone who knew him before the tragedy…oh, it’s a right shame, Elizabeth. To see such beauty wasted.” The older woman tsked quietly.
Elizabeth tried to imagine a male version of the Duchess of Stonehill. The sister was petite and slender, with an elegant neck that seemed created specifically to be adorned with jewels. Masses of blonde curls spoke to her vitality and health, along with a rosy blush that always colored her fine cheeks. She was beautiful, a natural aristocrat with that royal profile and an easy smile.
The older brother would be darker, Elizabeth guessed. His cheeks would be sharper, the angles of his face more severe. But he would have that smile that, when it appeared, made his relation to his sister impossible to deny.
“Heavens, what a story.” Elizabeth said, swallowing the dregs of her cup.
“You mustn’t go bandying it about. I only told you so that you would not get your feelings hurt should he happen to speak sharply to you. I’d rather you know that he wasn’t always that way. And anyway, you’re the only one in the house who doesn’t know. Save perhaps Lord Limingrose.”
“You, of all people, should know that I never indulge in gossip,” Elizabeth said with a wry grin.
Dorothy slapped Elizabeth’s knee and laughed. “Of course not. Never.”
“How can I be expected to do my lessons when it’s raining out?” Lord Limingrose whined.
“You had the same excuse when it was sunny. You’ll find that all sorts of weather conditions stay neatly out of the way when one is inside working.” Elizabeth slid his paper back across the table in the parlor.
“I want to see my mother.” The boy’s shoes were slightly muddy from a morning excursion out of doors already, and he swing them under his seat, sitting on his hands petulantly.
“Your mother is resting. We must give her plenty of peace and quiet.”
“Mother is always resting. Why’s she so tired?”
“Your letters, My Lord,” Elizabeth warned, pressing his pencil into his hand to do another line of b’s.
“Is she sick?”
“She isn’t sick. She’s worn out from getting ready for your new little brother or sister. You needn’t worry.”
“The one in her stomach?”
“Yes. Your letters, Lord Limingrose.”
The boy took the pencil with an exasperated sigh, and for a couple minutes at least, he applied himself to making neat little rows of letters. His handwriting was appalling but was improving slightly with practice.
After a while, he looked up and squinted suspiciously at her.
“What?” Elizabeth asked.
“How is the baby going to get out?”
“Shush. That is not something for children to worry about,” Elizabeth answered, her color rising. She fought to stifle her blush lest it encourage his questioning even more. The question had come up more than once during his mother’s pregnancy, and each time Elizabeth found herself at a loss to explain.
“Will it…. come out her mouth? One time I ate too many sweets and I was sick as the devil. How will it get past her teeth, though? She’s gotten enormous.”
“Goodness. You do know how to distract yourself from your work, don’t you? You must ask these sorts of things of your parents, not me. And don’t let your mother hear you calling her enormous.”
“Why do I have to ask my parents? Don’t you know? I thought you knew everything.”
“It must be time for your Latin lesson,” Elizabeth said, in an attempt at redirection.
The boy was still eyeing her with distrust, but Elizabeth was quite done with that line of questioning.
“I’ve been told that your uncle is coming to meet the new baby,” Elizabeth tried.
Lord Limingrose looked down somberly. “Yes, Mother told me.”
“Aren’t you happy? He must love you very much. You’re his first nephew, after all.”
He shook his head, subtly pushing way his Latin book. “No, he doesn’t. He doesn’t like me.” The little boy turned his face to the window, his large blue eyes tracking one drop of rain as it trickled down the pane of glass, merging with another drop on its journey to the windowsill.
“Now, what makes you say that?” Elizabeth asked softly. Although her charge could be as rambunctious as any other five-year-old boy, she had discovered early that he was also remarkably sensitive.
That explained his shyness.
It also came out in moments where any perceived disapproval would cause the boy to close in on himself and go quiet for the rest of the day.
He shrugged. “He just doesn’t.”
Elizabeth cocked her head to the side, pressing her lips into a sympathetic line as she placed her hand on top of his little one. “Sometimes adults can be complicated, My Lord. But I’m certain that your uncle loves you, even if he isn’t very good at showing it.”
He just shrugged again, sliding his hand away from hers. He let the subject drop then and applied himself to his lessons for the rest of the morning. Elizabeth’s mind was not so easily trained on her work, however.
The manor was so often visited by friends and family members of the Duke and Duchess, but none of them caused a stir the way that this gentleman did. He hadn’t even arrived yet, and he was all that any of the servants seemed to be able to talk about. Even talk of the imminent birth seemed to have dropped off in favor of gossip about the enigmatic Duke.
Mostly, what Elizabeth had gathered from various maids, was that the Duke of Hadminster was a god among gentlemen in terms of looks. If she went solely off the testimony of the house maids, Elizabeth would be forced to believe that he towered above the crowd at seven feet tall, with eyes that flashed like lightning, and hair softer than the finest silk.
She had to laugh, wondering how much of this description was influenced by his personal wealth. She did have to concede that it was rather romantic, the story of a gentleman irrevocably altered by the death of his lover.
The element of danger owing to the fact that he himself had been, even if only briefly, a suspect in her murder added to the gentleman’s mystique.
Elizabeth fought to regain control of her train of thought, reminding herself that the chance that she would ever even be introduced to the Duke of Hadminster was scant at best.
Gerard Watton, The Duke of Hadminster, fought to bring his attention back to the papers in front of him. The duties of his station were normally more than enough to keep his mind occupied and directed away from personal matters, but the letter from his sister sat, unopened, on his desk, taunting him.
He glanced at it once more. He would know her curly, slanting handwriting anywhere. He didn’t want to read the letter because he already knew what it contained. Her nine months were nearly up, and he had promised that he would be there this time to welcome the new member of the family. With Thomas, he had waited nearly a full six months before going to visit, and it had been a point of contention between the brother and sister ever since.
He forced his attention back to the business correspondence in front of him, adding a flourish to his signature at the bottom of the page. He was conducting business in his office, hoping that the burgeoning late summer sunlight would lift his spirits. So far it had failed to do so.
“Come now, Gerard, you said you would take the day off of work. Can this not wait?” Martin Bamber, the Earl of Woodsford, a business partner of the Duke’s and Gerard’s closest confidant, whined.
“Don’t do that thing with your voice, Martin. You sound like a child.” Gerard replied.
“But Gerard…” Martin said, drawing out the last syllable annoyingly, then laughing when Gerard glared up at him. “There’s bound to be no good riding in London. You’ve got to have a few good rides in before you go. You can answer letters anywhere, but you’ll miss these woods when all you’ve got to look at is babies and city ladies.”
“I shan’t be looking at any city ladies, Martin. I assure you.” Gerard said, folding the letter and sealing it with his crest. He glanced once more at the letter from his sister and, finally, picked it up.
“Last one?” Martin asked hopefully.
“Yes.” He had saved the letter for last, but there was no avoiding it now. He slid his silver letter opener underneath the wax seal and popped it open. Bridget’s handwriting met his eyes and he could swear that he heard her voice in his ear as he read.
I know it’s impolite to speak of such things as this, but my time draws near and I’m not ashamed to tell you that I’m afraid. Of course, the midwife says everything is fine and that I have nothing to fear, but you never can tell about these things. I know you don’t like to see me, though I don’t pretend to understand why. But please, for my sake, come soon. It puts me at ease to see you. I want my children to know you as I do.
Your devoted Sister
Gerard sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“You know, I’ve never seen a gentleman so determined to hate his own holiday,” Martin broke in.
Gerard shook his head. “Don’t you have something to do?”
“No, I took the whole day off to spend it with my friend before he leaves for the city,” Martin said. “Let’s go.”
Gerard dashed off a note to his sister saying that he would leave the following afternoon, then followed Martin out to the stables. The day was uncharacteristically cloudless for northern England, and the breeze that swept off the hills was almost warm. As the gentlemen mounted their horses, Martin regaled Gerard with inanities about the weather, about how he loved the warm weather.
Gerard, for his part, had a difficult time paying attention. As the gentlemen directed their mounts into the woods surrounding his country estate, Gerard could think only of his impending trip to Stonehill. He’d known for months that he would have to visit his sister again, and he’d dreaded it all along. His dread was made all the worse by the fact that he could not explain it to anyone, not to Bridget, not even to Martin.
The truth was, it pained him to see her so happy. Seeing her in the flush of new motherhood and wedded bliss only reminded him of everything he had lost. The Stonehill manor, as beautiful and stately as it was, felt like a tomb for Gerard’s hopes and dreams. His sister had the life that he had wanted. The family he had wanted.
His jealousy ate at him like an invisible disease, rotting him from the inside out. No matter how many solemn vows he made to himself before visiting her, he always found himself being ever colder and more snappish at them whenever he visited.
It was better just to stay away, he reasoned. It was better not to soil their happiness with his bitterness.
Unfortunately, Bridget didn’t seem to see it that way. The more he stayed away, the more letters she sent, begging for his company. They’d been close as children, and when their parents died, he had taken upon the mantle of fatherhood to her. His sudden change in demeanor must have been jarring.
“You really do need the time off, to rest,” Martin said in a teasing voice.
“Yes, Martin. I know. You’ve said that before. I leave tomorrow afternoon. I trust that everything will be managed to my satisfaction in my absence?”
“I could run your entire Dukedom with one hand tied behind my back and my eyes blindfolded,” Martin boasted.
Gerard shot him a withering look. “Yes, well. We shall see about that, I suppose. I expect daily letters detailing the business. Mister Andrews will serve as my go-between.”
Martin nodded silently. Gerard had been talking about his expectations of how his manor and his business would be run in his absence for weeks. Gerard couldn’t put his finger on it, but this visit to Stonehill seemed to carry some inexplicable importance in his mind. There was something in his gut that told him that he would not come away from this trip unchanged.
Perhaps the birth of a child would heal this gaping hole in his chest where Christine had been. Perhaps socializing, parties, dinners, and time spent with Thomas would bring the color back into Gerard’s life.
“Gerard, if you don’t mind my asking…are you hesitant to return to London because of…her?”
Gerard exhaled. No one said Christine’s name out loud around him. They didn’t need to. Her presence was always hovering around him, always there, always watching. The years that had passed had not changed that. The last time he had seen her was at her home in London. The morning before she was found lifeless in her own garden. He would have to pass right in front of that very house on his way to Stonehill.
“It’s been seven years,” Martin said.
“I am aware of how many years it has been,” Gerard snapped. Martin seemed to notice Gerard’s poor mood then, and they passed the rest of their ride through the woods in silence.
Leaving his home in the country, his refuge, only became more difficult the less he did it. This time, it had been a full year since Gerard had left his manor behind for more than a week. The manor, with its shining marble and elegant lawns, was more like a fortress to him. Within its walls he could lose himself in business, going days at a time without thinking of anything more personal than ship manifests and the long, tidy columns of his ledger books.
London, to him, was a place teeming with humanity. People courted in London, they danced, they kissed, they fell in love and married. Children were born. Homes were made. The city represented a life that he had extracted himself from violently so long ago.
Bridget had told him, years ago, that retaliating against a world that had taken Christine from him by hardening his heart against every tender thing was a childish and ridiculous way to grieve. But it worked. As long as he stayed out of London.
He gripped onto a newspaper in the carriage, twisting it in his palms so harshly that ink stained the fingers of his gloves. His heart raced as he struggled to keep calm and impartial. But every step of the horses brought him closer to the past that he had been hiding from for so long, and the feeling of foreboding that he had been fighting these past few weeks only grew stronger with each passing moment.
This is ridiculous. Get a hold of yourself, Gerard. You’ve done this before.
Gerard promised himself that he would be pleasant this time. Bridget needed it. She hadn’t gone into detail in her letters, but her anxiety about giving birth was evident in every word she had sent him. She needed the old Gerard, who would be at her side with a calm word and a protective glance whenever she needed it. To stand around in her home being aloof and unsociable would only cause her more strain. He knew that he owed it to her to be on his best behavior.
He tried a smile, watching his translucent reflection in the window of the carriage. It didn’t look good. His lips pulled into a straight line that made him look as though he were listening to a bad joke. He sighed, then tried again. His reflection smiled back at him sarcastically and he gave up.
As he drew nearer to London, he began to recognize places where he had spent his young adulthood. There was the road leading to a boyhood friend’s manor. And there was the dressmaker’s shop where he had chaperoned Bridget so many times. Christine’s home was coming up quickly and, try as he might to ignore the marble edifice that spoke of such painful memories, he could not but revisit that day when he had seen her last.
She had been wearing a white gown with lace at the wrists. He had always loved her wrists, so thin and frail and milky white, with a single freckle on the back of her left hand that he had kissed so many times. No amount of years could pass that would erase from his memory the details of her. Her voice, the flecks of gold in her eyes, the way she sighed so gently when he kissed her.
Gerard brought his hands up to his face, covering his eyes as though he could block out the memories that way. The creeping dread that he had been living with as the trip to London drew closer mounted into a panic as he passed by Christine's home.
There was no way that he would be able to escape thoughts of her the entire time he was in the city. There would be no refuge from the sadness at missing her, and the frustrated rage at never bringing her killer to justice. The excitement that coursed through his veins at the sight of that house where, on the veranda, he had sat with her and kissed her in the moonlight, would have no outlet until he could leave the city once more.
He opened the mangled newspaper and stared blankly down at it. His eyes scanned a single sentence over and over, not taking in the words at all. His hands were shaking.
Stop this nonsense. Calm down.
By the time he arrived at Stonehill, he had managed to stop his trembling, though his mind was still a tempest of anger and fresh grief. As the groom hopped down from the carriage and opened the door for him, Gerard remained seated. He felt winded, as though he had run from Christine’s home to Stonehill, and he wanted to be sure that he appeared calm and collected by the time he stepped out.
Stonehill was an imposing manor with white pillars, calling back to the Greeks, lining the front of the house. Bridget had done well for herself in her marriage to Jonathan, though money had not been an object in the match. Bridget and the Duke were in love, and all the wealth and pomp in the world could not dim the simple joy of their marriage. The two of them would have been just as happy living together in a poor cottage as they were in this stately manor.
He took a couple more steadying breaths, then, with all the force of will that he could muster, he trained his face into a pleasant expression and descended from the carriage.
He looked around, realizing with a start that there was no one outside to greet him. Not Bridget, nor her husband, not even a lone butler.
Gerard straightened his waistcoat and placed his hat upon his head, gathering his wits one final time before ascending the stairs to the door with as jaunty a step as he could muster. Glancing up at the windows, he thought he saw the movement of a curtain being rapidly dropped into place as he knocked on the door.
A servant, most likely.
There was, at first, no answer to his knock. He waited a moment, adjusting his hat. Then, finally, he knocked a second time. Even then, it was a few moments before the heavy door swung wide to reveal the face of, not a butler, but Bridget’s maid Dorothy.
She beamed at him in a moment of exuberance. Gerard returned her bright smile. Dorothy had been like a second mother to both himself and Bridget since they were children and seeing her again brought back many happier memories. She was beginning to show her age.
“Your Grace!” she called, laughing as she ushered him inside. “What a time to arrive! Alfred is busy tending to the Duke right now. If I hadn’t happened to be passing the hall just as you knocked, we’d not have known you were here!”
“Why, what’s happening?” Gerard asked, taken aback at the sense of hurry that quickened the woman’s voice. He noticed then that her mobcap was slightly askew and there was a fine sheen of sweat at her temples.
“The baby! It’s coming as we speak!”
“What, right now?” Gerard exclaimed, his eyes going wide.
“Yes, yes! Come along now and sit with the father-to-be.”
“Yes, of course. Bring me to His Grace at once. Is my sister all right?” Gerard deluged the aging maid with questions as he followed her up the grand staircase to the upper rooms.
“Oh yes, she’s doing fine. It started this morning when it was still dark. It started out slow but it’s quickening now. I'd guess that there will be a new baby in the world by dinner time.”
As they reached the top of the stairs, Gerard heard a plaintive wail that gave way to a pained shriek that sent a shiver down his spine.
“Good heavens,” he muttered, looking down the corridor where the sound had come from.
“She’s quite all right. Quite all right. It’s supposed to sound like that. Come along, quickly now.” Dorothy said, hustling him along in the opposite direction from the source of the screaming.
“You will let my sister know that I’m here, won’t you? Perhaps it might help her?” He wasn’t sure how much comfort his presence in the house could bring to his sister at such a moment as this, but it was all he had to offer just then.
“Of course, I will. She’ll be glad to hear it.” Dorothy said, glancing behind her as another cry went out from the other end of the hallway. “The Duke is just in here. I must get back to Her Grace.”
As Gerard entered a sunny parlor, the maid dashed away. Inside, Jonathan was standing irritably, his waistcoat askew and his hair at odd angles as he leaned against the mantelpiece.
“I do believe there’s a baby coming.” Gerard said, as he shut the door behind him against a fresh scream.
“Gerard!” Jonathan said, swinging around. The tall gentleman crossed the room in three strides before clapping Gerard in a brotherly embrace. Gerard thumped the father-to-be on the back and laughed.
“You look like you’ve been in a fight,” Gerard exclaimed.
“That I have! These blasted fools won’t let me anywhere near my wife. They say she doesn’t want to see me, but that’s nonsense. Of course, she wants to see me. I’m her husband for, God’s sake. Listen to her!” Jonathan raised his arm in a sweeping gesture.
“Well, did they let you see her the last time?” Gerard asked.
Jonathan and Alfred, the butler, exchanged glances.
“What?” Gerard asked.
“Last time she broke a priceless vase over my head when she threw it at me from the bed,” Jonathan divulged in a whisper.
A rare grin spread over Gerard’s face. “No, I don’t believe it.”
“She did. Only don’t tell her I told you. She’s embarrassed about it now. Which is why I know that she does want me with her this time.” This last bit was directed at the butler, who merely shook his head slowly.
“Sit down, Jonathan. Have a drink. Have a cigar.” Gerard took Jonathan’s arm and led him to the settee, making the stressed gentleman sit down while he poured him a glass of amber whiskey.
Jonathan took the glass and swallowed its contents in hurried gulps. Through the heavy wooden door, the sounds of Bridget’s trials were muffled, but not completely obscured. Jonathan let his head fall back and groaned as another cry rang out.
“This is torture. I can’t bear another moment of it,” he moaned.
Gerard, pouring himself a glass, shook his head. “Don’t let her catch you saying that. She’s the one doing the work. Unless you’ve got other priceless vases to spare.”
Gerard was attempting to put on an air of casualness, but in truth his own nerves were being jangled by the sounds of his sister’s ordeal. This was certainly not the welcome he had been expecting when he arrived at Stonehill.
“Perhaps some fresh air would do you some good. Come, show me the gardens. I’m eager to see them,” Gerard lied. He couldn’t give a fig about the gardens at that moment, but he thought that getting out of earshot of the Duchess might calm his nerves.
“I cannot leave. I don’t want them to have to search for me when the baby arrives. I will be waiting right here, ready to rush to her side,” Jonathan said resolutely.
“That’s very noble of you, but I got the impression that there still may be some time yet. And Alfred will know where we are. They won’t need to send out a search party.”
Jonathan shook his head. “I cannot do it. I have to stay here.”
Gerard glanced at Alfred who, behind his master’s back, shrugged weakly.
“All right, old chap. We’ll stay here. But let’s at least have a game of cards or something. Sitting here straining our ears won’t make the babe come any sooner or make it any easier for Bridget.”
Jonathan seemed highly reluctant to do anything other than press his ear to the wall listening for any sign of distress from his wife, but with time, he was convinced to play a round of cards.
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