Catriona could hardly squeeze her hands shut by the time she had finished in the kitchen. The blisters threatened to pop each time she did so. Thinking better of it, she decided to head up to her room. The kitchen was cleaned, anyway. No one could bother her for more work now.
As she walked to her room, she became aware of a pounding in her head—like someone taking dishes and breaking them against her forehead with great force. A migraine. Great. That would make her work tomorrow even harder than it already would be. Why had she not been adopted by a nice family when she was younger, like many of the others?
That might have made her life easier, but for now, she had to comply with the ridiculous demands the orphanage made of her. If they wanted her to clean the entire kitchen, practically alone, then she couldn’t really argue. Not if she didn’t want to get tossed into the streets and left to survive all on her own . . . which she knew would not end well. She’d be able to get a position as a maid, of course, but that would only get her so far.
While a proper position might have paid her, she had a feeling that the weariness she felt now would never end if she took that work up outside the orphanage too.
Upon arriving at her room, Catriona found Alice sitting on the other bed. A soft smile pulled at Catriona’s lips. At least she had her good friend to suffer with her through all of this.
“Catriona . . . you look knocked up . . .” Alice pursed her lips and frowned, showing more concern than Catriona had ever seen in one so young.
“What else can I do?”
She sighed as she sat down on her bed, taking her shoes off. Someone had broken a few plates earlier that morning, and she had spent the entire day with her boots on. The pain became more noticeable as her stockings slid around the blisters that had formed from wearing shoes that were both falling apart and at least one size too small.
“You could perhaps not work yourself to the bone. Those blisters look painful . . .” Alice winced, looking at them.
“Well . . . if we don’t comply, they’ll cast us onto the street, you know,” Catriona replied bitterly. “Is it possible to feel any less worthy of a family based on the way they treat us here?”
“I don’t know.”
Alice lay back on her bed.
“But have you ever wondered what life would be like if we had grown up in a wealthy family, Catriona? Having maids, and lady’s maids, and attending all the social events of the year?” She turned to face Catriona. “Having our pick of the men of the town, knowing there was little anyone else could say about it?”
“Money isn’t everything, Alice.”
“Isn’t it, Catriona? When you have nothing, it feels like it . . . what do you think is more valuable than money?”
Alice’s brows furrowed deeply as she thought hard about what could be more valuable than money.
“I think what matters most is love. It’s what keeps families together when there is nothing left in the bank,” she said eventually. “A family who can weather even the worst financial troubles together is the kind of family I want to live in. As it is, we’ve already weathered the worst life has to throw us. How much worse can it get?”
“Don’t say things like that, Catriona!”
Alice pushed herself up, leaning on her elbows and turning to face her friend with such a serious face, Catriona wondered what she had said that was so wrong.
“What do you think is going to happen? We’ve already lost our families . . . or they didn’t want us,” Catriona scoffed. “We have no recourse to have a good life here. Not if we haven’t already been adopted, after all.”
“There’s always hope of being adopted. Always. You never know when some baron or some such upper-class person will need someone to pass their wealth off to in old age,” Alice warned. “I’m serious!”
“You’re being superstitious again, Alice.” Catriona shook her head. “I’m exhausted. This isn’t a conversation to be having right now. They’ll be angry with us if we’re up much longer.”
“But it’s the only time we have to talk, now,” Alice whined quietly. “What if you came and sat on my bed, or I sat on yours, and we whispered?”
Catriona smiled, but she had no wish to continue the conversation. The pounding in her head had been growing worse as they talked, and she wanted nothing more than to blow their candles out and try to get some rest.
“I’m too exhausted to talk about anything, Alice. Though, I admit, I don’t get many nights when I’m not anymore,” she said with a regretful smile. “And I didn’t get much to eat today. My body needs rest.”
Alice huffed quietly but relented. There was really nothing more to say other than goodnight.
As Catriona blew her candle out, she watched the darkness encroach a little further into the room. The only thing that kept the room from being pitch black at night was the window they were lucky enough to have. It faced the moon most nights in the spring, and she had always found the moon to be a comforting sight. The image would give her some solace during the next day’s toil.
In a world of dreary constants, the moonlight and the soft, silvery gleam it threw over London at night made her feel as if she was a princess, if only for a moment.
That thought drifted off into sleep with her, and Catriona dreamed of a palace, large and airy, with many grand halls. There, no one could tell her what to do or how to act. Or what to clean. When to go to bed. It was a place of refuge, of happiness. Alice was there, of course, as was the man she’d always dreamt she’d marry. A man who cared for her personality and not that she had grown up in an orphanage and lacked the more refined sensibilities of the upper classes.
All too soon, the early light of the rising sun wakened Catriona. She sighed and rubbed her eyes. She’d have to get down to the kitchen immediately, as breakfast was to be served soon. It was the one meal during the day when there was a little more leniency about a few minutes lateness because it was so early and everyone was tired.
Alice was still fast asleep in the other bed, which Catriona did her best to respect. After a few years of living at the orphanage, she knew all the creakiest spots on their chamber floor and how to avoid them.
Breakfast didn’t demand any special preparations, but even those took some skillful maneuvering to keep her hands and feet from starting to hurt as badly as they had the night before. Thankfully, dish duty seemed to help. She could balance the plates and other flat surfaces on the palm of her hands and press with the areas that didn’t have as many blisters as the rest.
It was shortly after she had finished preparing breakfast and started on luncheon that Mrs. Easton came into the room.
“May I see you in my office, Catriona?”
The unexpected summons made her nervous. It had been a while since Mrs. Easton had wanted to see her specifically, and in her office, too. That was never a good sign when one was as old as Catriona. It meant one of two things.
Either Catriona was being adopted by an older couple looking to have someone to help ease things in their older age, or she was being kicked out of the orphanage on the pretext of some imaginary slight Mrs. Easton had dreamed up because she wanted Catriona’s bed for a younger child who was more likely to get adopted.
Her stomach tightened upon entering the office and finding a stern man sitting at the desk. He wore a suit, entirely black, with the exception of a golden pocket watch trailed across his vest. The gentleman stood upon seeing her and gave a soft bow at the waist.
“As you requested, sir, Miss Fraiser.”
“What a pleasure it is to meet you. I am Mr. Dilworth,” the man said.
Catriona couldn’t entirely read what was going on, but it was quite clear that Mrs. Easton deferred to Mr. Dilworth in this matter of business—whatever it was.
“Your presence is urgently required at Beaumore Manor in Mayfair, Miss Fraiser,” Mr. Dilworth continued, “There is to be a reading of a particular will there tomorrow, and it is imperative that you attend in person.”
“Mayfair? But that’s so far away, and I have no means of travel, Mr. Dilworth,” Catriona said.
“Worry about none of that. I’ve made all the necessary travel arrangements for the morning as well as hired a lady called Mrs. Burton to be a chaperone tomorrow. You’ll be staying the night in a hotel tonight.” Mr. Dilworth then turned to Mrs. Easton. “She will no longer need her place here.”
“You’ve heard Mr. Dilworth, Catriona. Go and pack what you wish now and return here immediately afterward.”
Catriona only nodded her head and quietly excused herself. Mr. Dilworth and Mrs. Easton said nothing as she left, and she could only assume they were waiting until she was entirely out of earshot before saying anything more about whatever was going on. Clearly, they didn’t want her to hear it.
When she returned to her room, Alice was up and preparing to scrub the floors elsewhere in the orphanage. Catriona could tell it by the large apron Alice had wrapped around her slight form.
“I don’t usually see you back up here before I go to scrub the floors . . .” Alice said, frowning. “What’s going on?”
“I-I . . . I have no idea.” Catriona sat down on the bed.
“Well, something has happened to put you in such a daze,”
Alice said, sitting down beside her friend and looking at her closely.
“Someone has called for me. A Mr. Dilworth. I’ve just spoken to him; he’s with Mrs. Easton in her office. She sent me back up here. It seems I’m to go to Beaumore Manor tomorrow . . . Beaumore Manor, Alice!” She turned to face her friend, eyes wide. “What can it mean? Do you remember last night? You said something about wondering what it would have been like to grow up with a wealthy family . . . Is it possible . . . that I’m about to find out?”
“Perhaps. Did they tell you why you’ve been asked to go to Beaumore Manor?”
“Yes, a will reading, apparently. And my presence, Mr. Dilworth says, is required for it,” Catriona explained, her forehead wrinkling. “But why? And why me?”
“Well, the only way to find out is to go to the will reading, I suppose. I hope its good news for you.” Alice stood up wearily. “I’d better get to work. We can catch up tonight,”
“No. I . . . I mean, I shan’t see you tonight. Mr. Dilworth has arranged for me to stay in a hotel tonight before leaving for the manor tomorrow.” Catriona looked at her friend again as Alice reached the door and turned back in surprise. “I’ll write to you if I’m not coming back. I hope I will be. But they’ve asked me to pack my belongings,” she explained, adding, “and I don’t wish to leave you here.”
Alice smiled crookedly. “Catriona, if anyone can survive here, it’s me,” she said, though her eyes shone a little, hinting at held-back tears. “You deserve a good change in fortune. Now, don’t worry about me. I must get to scrubbing those floors, unfortunately, but I hope to hear more from you soon. You know where I am, so, yes, write to me. And if you are to have a new address, you can send it to me—so I can let you know if anything amazing happens to me.” With a quick wink and a smile, she was gone, closing the door behind her.
Catriona nodded at the closing door, suddenly alone with her thoughts, and her few belongings.
She dragged the small travel trunk she owned out from underneath the bed. It was required of the orphanage to provide everyone with at least one travel trunk for their clothing and such, in case they were ever adopted. Since Catriona had not been adopted as a child, she still had the same small-sized trunk.
It didn’t really matter, she soon realized. She only had a couple of outfits she really wanted to take. Then there was her work clothing, which she didn’t know if she would need at the manor. The feeling of not knowing what awaited her at the manor made her feel more than simply apprehensive.
It worried her. Whatever happened at the manor on the morrow, something had already transpired that required her presence there. As much as she wanted to believe it was because she was going to be meeting her real family after all these years, she couldn’t entirely shake off her feelings of uncertainty. It was quite overwhelming.
It didn’t help that her packing took mere minutes, leaving her little time to think before she presented herself to Mr. Dilworth once more and was whisked away by him to spend the night at a hotel.
Hamish had arrived in London two days earlier, but he had not yet seen his parents. However, he had received an invitation to dine with them at Ashington Manor, with the Earl of Ashington and his family. It was their preferred residence during London’s social season in London. The arrangement made him wonder what was afoot, since his father seldom did anything without an ulterior motive that would benefit him.
Upon his arrival at Ashington Manor, Henry, the butler, greeted Hamish with a respectful bow and a warm smile.
“Welcome, sir, and thank you for coming. Please, come this way.” Henry motioned him inside. “Everyone is waiting in the drawing room for you.”
“Thank you, Henry.”
Henry walked him to the drawing room, where the door stood open and faint conversation could be heard inside. Hamish was pleased to enter and immediately spot his mother sitting upon one of the small couches. Seeing him, she rose from her seat and walked over to embrace her son heartily.
“It’s such a pleasure to have you home again, Hamish,” she said with a warmth only his mother could give him. “How was your trip?”
“It was long, but worth it, Mother,” Hamish said. “I am quite glad you were able to find time to see me so soon after arriving home.”
“Of course, we wanted to see you as soon as you arrived home,” his father said, typically not even bothering with a greeting. “Trips are all very well, but there’s work to be done here. Now, pay attention, Son. As you will have realized, we are joining the Earl of Ashington and his family for dinner. Now the Season is upon us, the earl will want to take advantage of being in Town and hear all about how business is going in the Far East. That’s where you come in—you’ll have the most recent knowledge of anyone at the table, having just arrived from there.”
“Of course, Father,” Hamish replied, sighing inwardly.
“Furthermore, it would be a wise business move if you were to marry the earl’s eldest daughter—her name’s Lady Josette Ashington.” His father paused to give him a stern look, as if to nip any protest in the bud. “She’ll do quite well in a marriage with you, I’m sure, and the union will bring us many benefits in expanding our business interests, not to mention a tidy dowry.”
“I shall consider it, Father,” Hamish said.
But his voice felt strained, and he wondered if his father could tell how unhappy he was to be back in the same situation he had previously escaped from by going abroad. Half the reason he had gone to the Far East to look study business from that side of the trading system was because his father had a particular tick that annoyed Hamish to no end: No matter what Hamish thought was best for his own life, his father would attempt to overrule it and force his son to do whatever he thought best.
This evening’s dinner and proposed marriage was typical of his father. Hamish seethed silently. I’ve only been in London for a few days, and the old man is already attempting to pull strings to improve the family’s business prospects by using me as his pawn! Though his mother was standing right next to him—he didn’t want to upset her—he wondered if it would be worth just walking out and refusing to attend the dinner with the Ashington family.
Never mind that they were his father’s longest-standing trading partners, Hamish now found a fresh reason for him to dislike them— Lady Josette Ashington.
He had no time for acting on his thoughts, for dinner was soon announced. The Countess of Ashington, Hamish saw as they entered the dining room, had managed the seating arrangements so that he had no choice but to sit beside Josette. This led Hamish to wonder if his father had already proposed the idea of a marriage of convenience to the earl before Hamish had even set foot back in London.
“How was the Far East, Hamish?”
Josette asked, clearly under orders to entertain him with her conversation. However, aside from allowing him to answer that single question, which he did only briefly, he soon found that most of their conversation thereafter centered on what Josette had been doing while he had been abroad. Apparently, she had become more proficient on the pianoforte, and she had heard that the weather was going to be glorious for the next few weeks.
Hamish could only give a quiet sigh of relief once he got into his carriage at the end of the night. In the Far East, he had not needed to put on air and graces for the sake of business. It had been business and business only in their meeting rooms. Plus, making friends with people not of British descent was something he’d found easier there compared to here in London, within the ton, with people like the Ashmore family.
It was only the next morning when Hamish had the chance to do what he had wanted to do since arriving back in London. He put on a simple, black three-piece suit, his silver pocket watch displayed on a chain. In his top hat, cane in hand, he set out to board the carriage.
“And where would you like to go today, sir? Beaumore Manor, is it?” The coachman looked at Hamish as if nothing had changed in the time he had been away.
Hamish appreciated the lack of fuss.
“Yes, please. Beaumore Manor, as quickly as you can.”
The coachman doffed his hat and waited for Hamish to settle into the carriage before geeing up the horses and setting off. Inside, Hamish found himself in an excited mood; he could hardly believe his long-term plan was finally taking shape. During Hamish’s time in the Far East, Anthony Beaumont of Beaumore Manor had kept in touch with him. With Anthony being one of his childhood friends, Hamish had appreciated it.
Now Hamish was back in town, he wanted to see through his plan to go into business with Anthony. The notion felt to him miles better than having to enter a marriage of convenience simply to please his father. And especially not with one of the Ashmore sisters.
Dinner last night had only reinforced his conviction. But he shook the thought away as he arrived at the Beaumore Manor. He was sure Anthony would be as pleased to see him as he was to see his old friend. Their reunion was something they had discussed in their last letter. Anthony had stressed that Hamish should come to see him at the manor at the earliest opportunity.
It wasn’t many minutes before Hamish was welcomed inside, and the two friends were sitting opposite one another in Anthony’s study.
“It is truly a great blessing to see you again, Hamish,” Anthony said with a wide smile. “I will have to hear all the stories you haven’t yet told me in your letters from the Far East.”
“And, again, I must offer my condolences on the loss of your uncle,” Hamish said. “They only go so far in letters. So, Viscount Beaumore . . . what does it feel like to have others address you by your new title when you go out in public?”
“It’s been . . . well, it was difficult at the start, I kept forgetting. But it’s been six months now.” Anthony sighed. “I almost can’t believe it’s been six months since my father passed away . . . but he hung on as long as he could.”
“I’m sorry. It must be painful to talk about. Well, let us be more cheerful and arrange to catch up at the club later tonight or perhaps one evening this week,” Hamish suggested, and Anthony nodded, looking relieved not to have to dwell on the loss of his father.
Hamish continued by saying, “One of the reasons for my visit today, apart from seeing you, old friend, is that I wondered if you’ve had a chance to consider my business proposal any further. I know the timing of my letter was very ill, but there is nothing I could have done to prevent that.”
Anthony nodded. “I have given thought to it, and I’m more than happy to go into business with you. Knowing you, and your work, I think it would benefit both of us. And you would have an area of business of your own which would not require you to dazzle someone else before getting the deal you want. You’ve dazzled me enough with your commitment to staying in the Far East for so long,” Anthony said.
Breaking off, he suddenly glanced at his pocket watch, then at a letter laying in front of him on his desk before looking back at Hamish.
“Oh . . . I didn’t realize how time had flown,” he said regretfully. “I’m sorry, Hamish, but I have to cut this meeting short. I’d love to meet up again soon to further discuss things, though.”
“May I ask why? Is that letter urgent?” Hamish asked, peering at it.
“Yes. I’ve just received urgent word from my uncle’s solicitor, Dilworth,” Anthony explained, gesturing to the letter. “He says he must meet with me without delay, this morning. In fact, I think he’s likely already arrived.”
“Oh, well . . . any idea what the meeting is about?”
Anthony shrugged as he stood up.
“It’s probably just something more to do with my uncle’s will. Mr. Dilworth has been rather . . . secretive about it, and I’ve not been able to find out why. Thought it best just to wait it out,” Anthony said. “Please, come by tomorrow afternoon. I propose a round of fencing and a few drinks afterward. I wish to hear more stories of the Far East.”
“And we might discuss the matter of our business too, please. I am incredibly excited at the thought of it, Anthony,” Hamish said with a smile.
“Not if we are to catch up,” Anthony said, shaking his head. “But we can fix time for a proper business meeting after that. I promise. If I don’t do it soon enough for your liking, you’re more than welcome to schedule something and force me to sit down. I’m still adjusting to things after my father’s death, you see. And it sounds as if the whole family was ready for this meeting, except me. I wonder if they all knew about it.”
“Well, if not, they might be in for just as much of a shock as you could be.”
“Perhaps so.” Anthony shrugged, then cocked an ear. “Do I hear a carriage drawing up to the manor?”
He walked to the window to look out. Hamish did not follow; he was on his feet, about to leave. As disappointing as it was to learn that his friend did not have time to properly discuss their proposed venture that day, it was not Anthony’s fault. If the solicitor thought it necessary to spring this meeting on his friend at the last minute, Hamish guessed there was probably something in the will he had not been able to reveal until all the proper conditions were met.
“I was right,” Anthony said from the window. “There’s a carriage out there, and it’s not yours. I’ll send word to the stables when we head downstairs.”
“Thank you, Anthony,” Hamish said. “I hope this meeting brings you good tidings. You deserve it after all that has happened over the last six months.”
“I appreciate that, Hamish. You have no idea how much I wanted to run away to the Far East and speak to you personally when I heard Father was so drastically ill. I’m only sorry you could not be here for the funeral.”
“I’m sorry too, but it was simply not possible. It’s a very long and often arduous journey from the Far East, you know,” Hamish said.
As they left the study and went down the hall, Anthony paused to instruct a footman to have Hamish’s carriage brought round to the front of the house.
“Do you have any idea what’s in your father’s will, anyway?” Hamish asked as they came to the stairs and started downwards.
“None.” Anthony said, shaking his head. “All I know is that shortly after he fell ill, he became very worried he wouldn’t survive longer than a month, so he had the will rewritten. Apparently, Mr. Dilworth was the only one allowed into the room. Not even my mother was there when the will was rewritten.”
Hamish pursed his lips. “How odd,” he said as they reached the bottom of the stairs and stood in the main hall.
“Well, I suppose there’s nothing to do now but to hear what Mr. Dilworth has to say,” Anthony said, his expression serious even as he smiled at Hamish.
“And learn whatever secrets your father has been hiding,” Hamish suggested, wiggling his eyebrows as he returned the smile. “I hope all goes well, my friend. You can count on me being here tomorrow for fencing and drinks.”
“Good. I can fill you in then,” Anthony said with a slight laugh. “I have a feeling it’s going to be an odd sort of day.” He looked over at the doors Hamish knew led into the drawing room. Voices could be heard faintly from inside. “From the sounds of it, everyone else is already gathered in the drawing room,” he added, turning back to Hamish.
“Don’t worry, I can see myself out. You go and join your family, and I’ll be around if you need a listening ear for any woes or worries,” Hamish told his friend with a smile.
The two men shook hands warmly, and Hamish sensed the tension Anthony must be feeling at what might transpire at this meeting when his father’s new will was finally read. Would it explain why it had taken so long for it to happen, and would the outcome it benefit Anthony? He hoped it would not be bad news, for his friend’s sake.
These thoughts occupied him as he settled once more in his carriage. But they were soon overtaken as he realized his short meeting with Anthony left him with time on his hands. He’d supposed their reunion would take up more time, hoping it would rid him of some of the lingering annoyance he still felt about the previous evening’s dinner. He frowned as he thought of how there had been something about sitting so close to Lady Josette Ashmore that had rubbed him up the wrong way.
Catriona rose from her luxurious bed in the hotel the next morning still feeling uncertain about what the day held for her. The hotel offered her comfort far more lavish than any conditions she had ever experienced in her life. A lady of her lowly means walking into a posh hotel had earned her quite a few stares from staff and guests the previous evening, even when accompanied by Mrs. Burton, who had the room next door to Catriona.
The sweet-smelling, downy, soft bed had provided her with some of the best sleep ever, with as many thick blankets as she wanted, and plump pillows to sink into. It had been an entirely welcome change from the orphanage’s worn-out beds, with their hard metal frames and threadbare blankets that were strictly rationed by the staff.
As she looked into the clear looking glass, she pulled her hair into a tight chignon and took a good look at her face. Her light blonde hair fell in loose wisps around her face, much to her annoyance. But the chignon seemed appropriate if she was to be in polite company that day. Her large, azure blue eyes stared back at her, and she noted with some satisfaction that they looked unusually bright due to the wonderful night’s rest she’d had. Whatever the day brings, I shall not be doing any cleaning at the orphanage today.
Slender in frame and of average height, Catriona could not fathom what it was about her that made Mr. Dilworth think she was worth a trip to Beaumore Manor. She didn’t have a family that she was well aware of, and she had nothing more to offer than her services as a well-trained maid to this particular family.
What a shame I have nothing to wear but this old grey dress, worn out from many days of cleaning, and these worn-out shoes.
But there is nothing to be done about it, she told herself, taking in a deep breath to steel herself for the day ahead. It won’t be long now before I’m in the carriage on the way to Beaumore Manor.
Indeed, it wasn’t long at all. Mrs. Burton made quick work of making sure that Catriona was ready for the day before escorting her out to the waiting carriage. To her, the vehicle seemed just as lavish inside as the hotel, and it made Catriona feel unsettled.
“How long is the drive to Beaumore Manor, Mrs. Burton?” Catriona asked, attempting to make conversation with the chaperone and find out anything she knew.
It got her nowhere. Mrs. Burton told her only that the journey would be two hours or so before clamming up. Her silence did nothing to help ease Catriona’s nerves about what to expect. Why am I being kept in the dark?
Her nerves heightened when the carriage finally came to a halt outside a large, grand house, which she assumed was their final destination, Beaumore Manor. As the carriage door opened, Catriona gulped hard and her heart raced. She was in such a nervous state, she almost missed the helping hand offered by a footman to help her out of the carriage.
She took the hand and descended to the ground. Soon, in a daze, she found herself being escorted to the entrance of the manor, with Mrs. Burton close behind her. The stone steps felt warm beneath her feet, reminding her of just how threadbare the soles of her shoes were.
Halfway up the steps to the entrance, the sight of a striking gentleman ahead caught her eye. He was tall, and from what she could see of his frame beneath his suit, muscular and well-built, with broad shoulders. He was clean-shaven, and she thought him quite handsome without any of the whiskers or other facial hair some men cultivated.
Then, Catriona realized she seemed to have caught the gentleman’s eye too. Blushing before she looked away, she noticed they were such a striking pale blue, and a vision of a summer sky sprang to her mind, almost making her forget where she was.
She bowed her head and attempted to walk past the man without drawing further attention to herself. But before she went any further, she suddenly tripped on the uneven old steps and lost her footing.
As she fell, the gentleman simply reached over, took her arm firmly, and set her upright before she could hurt her face on the stone steps. Only when she seemed steady did he release her arm.
“Are you all right, Miss?” he asked in a deep voice that thrilled her, even in her shaken and mortified state.
Catriona stared at him, managing only a nod of thanks, struck suddenly dumb in the face of his kindness.
He opened his mouth as if about to say more, but someone cleared their throat pointedly, so he shut it again, looking behind Catriona. She didn’t have to see her chaperone to realize Mrs. Burton was standing there.
“Have a good day, Miss, Madam,” he said hurriedly, tipping his hat to them both before continuing on his way down the steps. Catriona had no choice but to continue into the house, unsure of what had made her trip. She felt somewhat irked that Mrs. Burton hadn’t allowed the man to introduce himself to her before leaving.
Then again, she didn’t know what kind of society she was getting herself into there at the manor. Surely, it was unusual for someone of his stature to be kind to someone like her. And that only made her wonder again why Mr. Dilworth had insisted she come to Beaumore Manor that day.
An elderly man met her and Mrs. Burton at the door.
“Ah, you must be Miss Fraiser and Mrs. Burton. Mr. Dilworth warned us to expect you today. I am Mr. Leonard, the butler here.” He gave a soft bow to both Catriona and Mrs. Burton. “Miss Fraiser, if you’d please follow me. You’re needed in the drawing room upstairs.”
“I shall wait down here, if you do not mind, sir,” Mrs. Burton said.
Leonard nodded and arranged for the chaperone to be seated in a small parlor off the hall. He then escorted Catriona up the impressive staircase. The downstairs of the manor was beautiful, from what she could see of it, but the long upstairs hallway she followed the butler along was equally impressive. The floor was of marble, which was cold beneath her worn soles, unlike the sunbaked stones at the entrance.
Mr. Leonard stopped at a closed door and opened it.
“Miss Catriona Fraiser,” he announced, ushering her inside.
Catriona managed a small smile of thanks before walking into the enormous drawing room. There were several people already there, their faces unfamiliar, and all conversation ceased the moment she set foot inside. Many pairs of strange eyes now stared at her, and she felt instantly intimidated as she bobbed a curtsey in greeting.
She soon noticed that everyone was dressed in such fine attire that even the smallest item had probably cost more than her entire outfit, and was in far better shape too.
A short, middle-aged lady took it upon herself to speak first.
“Are you lost?” the woman demanded loudly, raising her eyebrows at Catriona. “The servant’s quarters are situated downstairs, not up here.”
Footsteps behind Catriona meant she didn’t have a chance to respond, but she didn’t dare turn around to see whose they were. Part of her wished she was lost and looking for the servant’s quarters.
“I have invited Miss Fraiser to this meeting, Lady Spencer,” a male voice said, and she recognized it as Mr. Dilworth’s.
Thank the Lord he had arrived in time to keep Catriona from being further embarrassed . . . or embarrassing herself.
“Invited her?” Lady Spencer drawled, looking Catriona up and down disdainfully. “What business can a servant girl have here at the reading of my brother’s will?”
“If you would calm yourself, Lady Spencer, I shall reveal all when I begin the reading,” Mr. Dilworth said. “Now, since everyone is here, Miss Fraiser, please take a seat. We shall begin very shortly.”
Mr. Dilworth moved past her to take a seat at a desk in the corner of the room. While he settled his papers, Catriona looked around her and took a seat at the back of the assembled company, trying to be as unobtrusive as she could. Still, it was now clear to her that the others had no idea of what she was doing there either.
“Please, enough of the dramatics, Mr. Dilworth,” another woman spoke up. “Let’s get on with it. Surely, there’s no need for all this mystification.
The speaker was older than Lady Spencer but no less impressively dressed.
“If you would please wait just a moment more, Lady Beaumore,” Mr. Dilworth said. “I am sure everyone, Miss Fraiser included, is wondering why she is here today. As soon as I have opened this will, I shall explain it all. But I ask for just a moment longer, to be sure I have it all properly prepared.”
A hush settled over the room. Catriona dared not ask anyone else what they thought she was there for. And no one seemed interested in asking her either. She’d honestly thought she was being farmed out as servant to the family, hence Lady Spencer’s reaction. But then, Mr. Dilworth’s words at the orphanage returned to her.
My presence is specifically required here. He made that plain. But whatever for?
Mr. Dilworth suddenly cleared his throat, abruptly puncturing the heavy silence in the room.
“I now read directly from the will of the late Viscount Beaumore, and I ask that you all remain quiet until I have finished reading this specific portion of the will. And I quote, ‘My dearest family, I do not know when this will shall be read to you all, but I do know one thing: I have kept a secret that I refuse to take to the grave with me. Before I fell ill here, I had no intentions of revealing it. In my youth, I married a young woman named Elspeth Fraiser.”
Silence fell again as Mr. Dilworth looked over the page at everyone, but particularly at Catriona. She felt heat rising in her cheeks. Fraiser. Her last name was Fraiser.
“That marriage came about because Elspeth was a wonderful woman. A year later, she gave birth to a baby girl, whom we named Catriona. Sadly, Elspeth passed away shortly thereafter. I was in no condition to raise our daughter alone. So, I sent her away to an orphanage, never to know of her family. Until I fell ill and became full of regret. Thus, it is my intention that with this new will, I leave my entire estate and fortune to my daughter, wherever she may be, and under whatever name she uses today.”
He put the paper down.
“A daughter?” Lady Spencer frowned deeply as she spoke. “And we are to believe it has taken six months to read my brother’s will because of this?”
“Yes, Lady Spencer. I have spent those six months searching for Miss Fraiser. You see, it is no happenstance that I waited until I had found Miss Fraiser to read that paragraph, and the will in its entirety.” He looked at Catriona. “Miss Fraiser, my apologies for not saying anything yesterday of this, but I have proof that you are the single legitimate daughter of the late viscount.”
A shocked silence filled the room, though some of the others turned to peer at her, disapproval on their faces.
Catriona stood up to walk across to Mr. Dilworth, to see the will herself. She didn’t get far before her knees buckled underneath her and the whole room began tilting to one side.
A voice called her name, but she couldn’t tell whose before everything around her faded to black.
The next thing Catriona knew was that she was laying on a soft bed in a lavishly decorated bedchamber. She realized she’d been moved from the drawing room to a bedchamber by someone—perhaps by some of the servants of the household. A young woman was sitting next to the bed.
“Oh, thank goodness you’ve awoken. You gave us all quite a scare. I’m Bridget, by the way, Lady Beaumore,” the woman introduced herself. “My husband is the new viscount, but I suppose that’s all new to you. We’re just glad you’re all right after that fright. Take all the time you need to rest. We can talk more in the morning.”
Lady Beaumore smiled at her as she got up and left the room, quietly closing the door behind her.
Catriona wasn’t about to argue. After what had happened in the drawing room, she thought the offer of a good night’s rest was worth taking up, if only to avoid the others for a bit longer. With the sound of the door shutting behind Lady Beaumore, she laid back on the bed gratefully, her mind in whirl.
The legitimate daughter of a viscount . . . and he’d sent her to live in the orphanage?
She couldn’t quite fathom it. However, if that was what the will said, then who was she to argue with it? It may not have anything to do with how she had actually ended up in the orphanage, but she had no way of knowing. She had been there since she could remember. Perhaps her father had originally entrusted her care to someone else?
But for now, she attempted to push all that aside and try to get some proper sleep. Her world had just turned upside down . . . and she wasn’t going to get anywhere with no rest.