February 8th, 1814—The Edgenshire Manor, Essex.
“Abigail Snowley, you are a God-sent angel.”
Abigail, smiling at the matronly woman, closed the door of the inn with a quiet click. Then, she held out a woven basket filled with brightly colored petunias and said in a mock-authoritative tone, “Order up for the inn, fresh and nice and clean!”
Grace Spencer, the co-owner of Spencer’s Inn laughed heartily as she extended her hands to collect the overflowing basket. “I can’t thank you enough for these. You have been more than helpful today. Oh my, these smell wonderful. And the petals are in full blossom too.”
Abigail beamed back effusively. “I’m very pleased you like them.”
A motherly smile was plastered on Grace’s careworn face. “How can Henry and I thank you enough? We appreciate these, Abigail, we really do.”
Abigail felt her cheeks color a deep shade of pink. “Please, Mrs. Spencer. Don’t mention it. It was my offer, after all.”
“And a very thoughtful one, too,” Grace added. “Come with me, let’s put these in water quickly before they wither.”
Abigail followed the older woman as she led the way to the back of the inn, where the kitchenette was located. She put down the basket and walked to the large cupboard, opening it to take out a cream-colored porcelain vase. Abigail closed her eyes, loving the way the sweet-smelling scent of the flowers filled the room. Then, a sudden realization made her open them quickly, and she said, “Oh, dear.”
Grace stopped short, glancing up in concern. “Is anything amiss?”
“No. I know it’s rather too soon, but I am afraid I must be on my way home. I—I have just remembered that my grandfather requested my presence at dinner tonight. I am expected to be punctual for it.”
Grace’s right brow shot up in apparent surprise. “Oh. Has he . . . has he finally had a change of heart?”
Abigail shrugged. “I have no idea why he has asked me to attend. It’s quite strange that he should. To be candid with you, Mrs. Spencer, I must confess I have an uneasy feeling about it.”
And she was right to do so, Abigail thought with a slight twinge of apprehension. In the last seven years of being in her grandfather’s care, he hadn’t cared much for sharing meals together.
“You must go. I also have a feeling about it, and I think this invitation just might be in your interest, my dear girl. It’s been a long time since there’s been a closure like that, and I hope there might be a change coming. I think your grandfather might be ready to restore that former bond. This dinner might prove to be the evidence of that.” Grace’s voice was reassuring.
Abigail, still very unsure, could only draw strength from the quiet optimism of Mrs. Spencer’s advice. She smiled at the older woman in gratitude and, after a quick embrace and a promise to visit again soon, bade her goodbye.
On the walk home, Abigail’s thoughts turned to her grandfather. It was no news to the townspeople that he was an insufferable man. He had always been impulsive. It was but one of the destructive traits he possessed in great abundance.
Ever since the tragedy that had befallen her parents seven years ago, cutting short their lives in an untimely, painful fashion, her grandfather had been the one to take her under his wing, and he had done the necessary service required as a guardian. He had actively participated in her upbringing—giving her a good, formal education, grooming her to be a fine lady of Society, and the rest. But he had never shown her love or any meaningful familial attention. He had given her an extremely sheltered life, away from the opportunities that came with mingling with other people. Hence, she’d never had the benefits of healthy interaction with outsiders. He’d never held her feelings in high regard, or shown her the slightest bit of emotional affection. If he had any at all, he hoarded it from her, as though loathing to let her see he cared for her.
Sometimes, Abigail wondered if he was actually her grandfather or a monster in disguise.
A battle raged inside her as she weighed the possibilities in her mind. Was the dinner meant to establish an emotional connection between her and her grandfather which had so far not existed? It would definitely have an effect on their future relationship if that was the case. But . . . would such a connection last?
The air was pleasantly cool as Abigail arrived at the house. Above her, the burnished gold-orange vividness of the setting sun tinted the dusky sky. Taking it as a sign of good luck, Abigail crossed the stone passageway leading through the gates and rang the small metal bell set in the wall. She sent a pleasant smile to the gatekeeper, who let her in.
“Welcome back, Miss Snowley.” He touched the tip of his cloth cap with a calloused finger, acknowledging her with a nod.
“Thank you, Mr. Carlson. A good evening to you.”
She continued on her way, reaching the cobblestoned path leading up to the patio, where she nearly stopped in her tracks at the unfamiliar sight before her.
There was a carriage parked outside the house. Abigail’s brow furrowed in perplexity. What could it be doing there? Had Grandfather invited a guest for dinner, too? It was very unusual to see a carriage at the house, especially one she wasn’t acquainted with. She was only familiar with the vehicles of the milkman and the florist when they made their routine weekly deliveries.
As she stepped into the hallway of the house, a portly figure appeared before her, nearly colliding with her. Abigail’s heart quickened, her growing uneasiness with the situation almost overshadowing her composure. Alarmed, Abigail drew back to see she had bumped into the housekeeper.
“Why, Miss Silverman, you—you startled me.”
“Oh, Miss Snowley, accept my apologies. I saw you coming from afar, and I wanted to deliver the message before you went upstairs.”
There was a hesitant look on Abigail’s face. Message? “What message is that, pray?”
“It’s from your grandfather. He has instructed me to tell you to be sure to look especially nice for dinner this evening.”
Abigail frowned, confused. “Especially nice? Pray tell, for what reason?”
“He didn’t say. He only gave me the message and told me to pass it on to you. It seems he has already chosen the dress you are to wear, too. Your lady’s maid has been instructed accordingly.”
“But that’s preposterous!” Abigail exclaimed with a flash of irritation. What is grandfather up to? He’d never shown any interest in her appearance before, especially not at dinner, since they had not dined together in the seven years she had been his ward. It made his instructions appear all the more bizarre . . . and all the more worrying.
“I’ll be in my chambers then, Miss Silverman,” she murmured, her brows drawing even closer together.
“I’ll have Edith sent up at once, shall I?” suggested the housekeeper.
“Yes, of course. Thank you.” Abigail nodded distractedly as Miss Silverman moved away. She didn’t know what to think about these new developments. First, there was her grandfather’s unprecedented dinner invitation—that was odd in itself. Over the years, she’d gotten quite used to dining alone in the secluded privacy of her chambers. Why should that suddenly change now? And a mysterious dinner guest too? What could that mean? They so seldom had guests or visitors of any sort. Plus, she was supposed to wear a particular dress chosen by her grandfather. Things could hardly be any stranger!
Half an hour later, Abigail, dressed in a light blue taffeta gown, her hair styled atop her head, stood nervously outside the door of the dining hall. Smoothing down the lustrous fabric of the close-fitting dress, Abigail inhaled a sharp intake of breath and whispered a quick prayer to the heavens.
Pushing the door open, she entered the dining hall. The butler and servants hovered by the walls, ready to serve the food from the silver-covered dishes waiting on large sideboard. Her grandfather was already seated in his customary position at the head of the table, which was lavishly laid for the meal. To his left sat a strange man whose face Abigail could not make out. The two men’s heads were bent together, and they were so deep in conversation, they did not immediately notice her. Their hushed murmurs were barely audible, so she had no idea what they could be discussing so intently. Yet Abigail felt a fresh wave of trepidation wash over her as she approached the table.
Her grandfather looked up at last, and a bright smile appeared on his wrinkled face when he saw her. The stranger looked at her and stood up at once.
“Ah, Abigail. So nice of you to join us, finally,” her grandfather said, turning to the unknown gentleman. “Frederic, this is my granddaughter, of whom we were just speaking. Abigail, do say a kind hello to the Viscount Chesingwood.”
“Good evening, Grandfather,” she murmured, bobbing a curtsey. As she rose, she caught an unfamiliar look of pleasure on the old man’s face which made her feel even more uncomfortable. He was not a man known to smile easily.
Filled with fresh unease, she swallowed hard, forcing herself to give a small smile to their guest, who wore a plain black suit and white stock. At a glance, Abigail noticed that the sides of his eyes were wrinkled with age, and gray strands were clearly visible in his once-black hair. She curtsied and managed to say politely, “Good evening, Lord Chesingwood.”
The viscount’s eyes twinkled in unadulterated delight. “Good evening, Miss Snowley,” he said smoothly, coming to her side, bowing elegantly, and kissing her proffered hand . . . rather more lingeringly than she liked. “Your grandfather has told me a great deal about you. It’s very pleasant to meet you.”
Immediately distrustful, Abigail glanced first at her grandfather, then at the viscount, whose faces told her nothing except that they were pleased. The viscount then smiled at her and pulled out her chair with a flourish. She had no choice but to sit and allow him to push her chair into the table.
“Thank you, my lord,” she murmured as he resumed his seat opposite her. She bobbed her head dutifully and was about to respond to the man’s greeting when her grandfather cut her off with a throaty laugh that rumbled from the folds of his belly. Loudly, he said, “Indeed it is nice for you to meet, Frederic, indeed it is! Especially for Abigail.” He swiftly turned to her, his bright blue eyes gleaming avidly.
Abigail felt more confused than ever, her thoughts racing. Especially for me? What does he mean? What is going on?
Her grandfather signaled with a finger for the first course to be served, and the butler set about pouring the wine and serving sliced roasted meats from a platter, while plates of steaming vegetables were proffered by footmen.
Once the food was served, the servants withdrew to their stations, and the three began to dine, the men heartily. Though the food looked enticing, Abigail had no appetite. But she picked up her knife and fork, at the same time stealing a glance at her grandfather. He caught her eye and looked away. Abigail was sure he must have recognized her puzzled expression, for the next moment, he swallowed a mouthful of roast beef, took a gulp of wine, and cleared his throat with a rehearsed formality.
“You see, Abigail, Lord Chesingwood here has requested your hand in marriage. And I have agreed he should have it,” he announced.
Abigail’s jaw dropped, and she felt the color drain from her face. Her cutlery fell from numb fingers, clattering to her plate. I must have misheard. I thought he said marriage, but it cannot be so. Why, the—the man is three times my age, at least!
“I beg your pardon, Grandfather. I don’t think I heard you correctly,” she managed, a slow feeling of cold dread creeping through her veins.
“Oh, dear,” her grandfather said with a frown, laying down his knife and fork and picking up his wine glass. “I fear I should perhaps have been more . . . delicate in delivering the good news to you, considering how weighty it is.” He swallowed deeply of his wine, replaced his glass on the table, and looked directly at her.
Abigail could only stare at her guardian, his words echoing in her ears. She knew he could see her distress, yet his face was the perfect picture of indifference. Clearly, he had no regard for her feelings or wishes. How—how can he be my own flesh and blood and yet treat me so cruelly?
“Come, Abigail, close your mouth. The news is something of a shock for you, I know. But no doubt, you are delighted to know you are soon to be a viscountess. There is much to discuss,” her grandfather said briskly, returning to his food. She saw the viscount watching them covertly as he continued to eat. When he saw her looking at him, he smiled, apparently unfazed by her shock and obvious lack of enthusiasm.
Her eyes smarted with tears as she realized with horror that she was sitting across from the man who had been chosen as her betrothed. Abigail caught the lopsided grin her guardian flashed at the viscount, who now grinned back at his host.
“I hope it is a pleasant surprise rather than a shock,” he said, and her grandfather laughed. The viscount joined in. Their laughter is obviously at my expense, she thought bitterly, swallowing back her hurt and pain as she listened to the two men discuss her betrothal as if they were negotiating the sale of a horse. It was as if she was not even there.
“My dear girl, this is a decision myself and your grandfather have agreed upon,” put in the viscount, his tone smooth. “It is out-of-the-blue, to be sure, since we have not met before. Yet I am assured that you will come to see the arrangement favorably in time.”
Abigail could only stare back at him, quite taken aback by the confident effrontery of his words. What a lot of gall he has!
“The wedding will take place in a fortnight’s time. Lord Chesingwood will be away attending to business until then. When he returns, we shall celebrate this very favorable match, my dear Abigail,” her grandfather said, a smug smile etched on his face.
The last sentence enraged Abigail. Favorable? How can any of this be favorable for me? Her body quivered in fury, so she forced herself to sit up, ramrod straight. Her hands in her lap balled into fists, and her breath labored beneath her tight satin corset.
Abigail felt as if her brain was turning to porridge with the effort to assimilate what was happening . . . and her seeming inability to protest against it. She was so overwhelmed with shock, she remained speechless, though there was a lot she wanted to say.
As a grieving teenage girl grateful to have been taken in by her stiff, authoritarian grandfather, she had never dared oppose him. For the last seven years of her life, she had obeyed him in everything. But this time, Abigail knew with certainty, it would be the last.
She pushed back the tears gathering at the sides of her eyes and lifted her chin, pulling together the shreds of her shattered self-respect. She looked at the men, who were still conversing, and she made up her mind right there and then. Mrs. Spencer had been right about one thing—her grandfather’s invitation to dinner had indeed heralded a change—but it was not one she would ever accept.
No matter what.
February 8th, 1814, The Davington Manor, London.
If there was one thing Gareth Davenport, the Duke of Davington, knew he would always love, it was the familiar scenery of London Town. Today, though, he was leaving the city, seated in his carriage on the way to his manor, enjoying drinking in the sights and sounds beyond the window, savoring the beauty of the lush, green countryside that had replaced the city’s bustling streets.
He hadn’t been home for some time, for there had been many business matters to deal with in Town. Now, however, business was done for a while, and he looked forward to getting back to the country.
As they approached the village that was part of his estate, Gareth felt a pang of nostalgia swell within. He gazed wistfully at the familiar sights that passed by, recognizing all the familiar landmarks of his boyhood. There was Rosette’s Bed and Breakfast, Eric & Sons Lumber Services, the church of Saint Andrew’s, and Short’s Livery Stables, among others. Gareth marveled that the businesses all seemed to be thriving still.
There were others, too, which he remembered from his youth, but which were now missing. Many of the old buildings had clearly been renovated or showed a change of business occupation. He was sad to see that one of them—an old favorite of his—was old McKinley’s Sweet Shop. He and his sister, Hyacinth, had often frequented the place as children. The aged shopkeeper, who had been terribly fond of them, Gareth recalled, had always added a few extra sugar-coated toffees to their small purchases. But it seemed that McKinley’s Sweet Shop was no more. A smart new sign hung outside the building, the words “Kitty’s Ladies’ Millinery” embossed upon it.
The memory of Hyacinth suddenly prompted him to think of his family. He had received word from them some days ago, from his aunt Lady Lucinda, in fact, that they had safely returned home after a business trip.
The letter had ended with a postscript informing him of the preparations currently underway for his sister’s upcoming Season debut. It had greatly pleased Gareth. Hyacinth was a grown woman, and she was now at most suitable age to be introduced to worthy suitors. With her too-rosy cheeks and defiant temperament, his sister had always had a mind of her own, one their aunt had so far been unable to exercise her control upon.
Gareth mused, smiling at the thought of Aunt Lucinda. She would be terribly glad to see him again.
Deep in thought, Gareth didn’t notice the carriage slowing until it rattled to an abrupt halt.
The footman quickly appeared to open Gareth’s door. He bowed and said, “Your Grace.”
Curtly nodding once in affirmation, Gareth strode towards the towering manor, going up the steps leading to the front door. He had nearly reached it, ready to knock, when it forcibly swung open. A harried-looking woman wearing a gray hat and a pale expression suddenly emerged, whizzing past him, muttering something incomprehensible to herself. She did not even glance at Gareth as she sidestepped him, rushing through the archway and clattering down the steps without so much as a word.
Gareth could only stare at her retreating back, dumbfounded, as he watched her nearly stumble down the steps, hastily hurrying to the gate, as if in a swift bid to get away.
Quickly stepping through the open door into the dimly lit hallway, he closed it behind him.
Who the devil was that woman?!
“Gareth?” he heard a familiar voice say behind him and immediately turned.
“Gareth, is that you?” His aunt was standing, looking forlorn, by the newel post at the bottom of the staircase. She was staring at him, as though trying to decide whether he was really there or not.
“Aunt Lucinda.” He crossed the threshold, coming fully into the late-afternoon light.
“Oh, gracious Heavens, it’s you.” He heard her breathe out in palpable relief as she came closer, gathered him in her arms, and embraced him warmly. Gareth took in the familiar scent of her eau-de-toilette and briefly closed his eyes as he inhaled. When he pulled away, he looked at her questioningly.
“Aunt Lucinda, what’s going on? I have just seen a strange woman hurrying out of here, and she looked very distressed. Has something happened? Is all well?” he paused, peering into her face for any tell-tale signs of malady. “Are you—are you well?”
Her face was marked by lines of tension. “Oh Gareth, it’s Hyacinth.”
Terror gripped his throat. “What is it?”
“She has gone out of control,” his aunt cried almost hysterically, waving her hands in apparent anxiety. “She won’t listen to me—nor anyone.” She sighed. “The woman you just saw leaving in a haste? That was Miss Brown. She is your sister’s lady companion—or was, rather. We typically obtain them from a reputable governess’s institute. Unfortunately, she’s the third one to walk out through that door in the last year.”
Gareth watched his aunt shake her head ruefully as she added, “I don’t know what to do. I am at my wits’ end trying to understand why Hyacinth must behave so inappropriately. Heavens, her behavior is so shocking, the poor women soon find they can’t put up with it. They leave almost as quickly as they come.”
Seeing his formidable aunt looking so helpless tore at Gareth. His jaw clenched. Why must Hyacinth cause so much trouble?
Resolving to deal with his sister later, he sought first to soothe his aunt’s agitation.
“Aunt Lucinda.” Gareth’s tone was placating. She was his late father’s sister and had assumed guardianship over himself and his sister after the former duke’s demise. He had never liked seeing her in such distress. She was not cut out for dealing with Hyacinth’s antics. He placed his hands on the older woman’s shoulders comfortingly. “Please, calm yourself. This excitement is not good for your state of mind—”
“But you don’t understand,” she cut him off, gazing into his face with worried eyes. “Your sister’s debut is less than a month away. She is far from ready for it. Pray tell, my dear nephew, how do you send three lady-companions away in less than a year? Not one or two but three. Three! Heavens, that’s a disaster!”
He watched the way her composure quickly deserted her. She sucked in a quick breath and folded her arms around her middle, wincing as though a pain had shot through her. She was still talking, her voice a tired, husky whisper. “I fear—I fear if she continues like this, she will end up a spinster, and you know what will that do to us? You know how many tongues will wag and jest at our expense? Oh, dear . . .”
Gareth clasped the older woman’s quivering hands in his. “Aunt Lucinda,” he said, his voice firm but gentle, “I assure you that won’t happen. I give you my word.”
“No buts.” Gareth squeezed her hands as he continued. “I will find another companion for Hyacinth, and it will be the last. She’ll have her debut, and there will be no more mishaps. Do not fret.”
He felt his aunt hands become less taut underneath his fingers.
“Thank you.” Aunt Lucinda exhaled shakily. “Thank you very much, dear nephew. I’m just so sorry that you had to come home and see me under these . . . conditions.”
“Don’t be. It’s my home and my responsibility, too.” Gareth made a mental note to address the troublesome individual in question after he was properly rested. “Speaking of which, where is Hyacinth?”
“In her chambers,” his aunt responded. “She’s locked herself in. I’m sorry, where are my manners? You must be exhausted after your journey.”
“Actually, I’m starving.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I had Cook make your favorite, then.” Her lovely green eyes shone as he laughed heartily, they turned together to ascend the stairs.
Gareth couldn’t resist grinning as he followed her. He would always love his aunt for her sense of utter practicality. “There’s nothing more at this moment I would love more than the immense pleasure of devouring one of Cook’s pot roasts, Aunt Lucy. Absolutely nothing at all.”
Gareth was pleased to hear his aunt’s chuckle and see the creases of worry soften on her face, making her appear almost a decade younger.
It was a beautiful thing to see.
“What would you like to drink tonight, Your Grace?”
“A large gin and tonic, please.”
The barkeep, an adolescent boy, nodded and turned to fetch it, soon placing the drink on the bar before Gareth. Gareth thanked him, then sipped with satisfaction at the cool liquid while surveying his surroundings. The company comprised a handful of men, talking indistinctly, drinking, or sometimes just staring into space. The quiet ambience of Dillent’s Club— a former haunt of his—appealed to him.
“Low turnout tonight?”
The boy looked past him at the scant customers and grinned. “It’s Sunday, Your Grace, the day of worship. Most of the men are at home with their wives.”
“Of course.” Gareth nodded and finished his drink. He had just ordered another when he heard the inn door swing open, followed by heavy footsteps.
“Well, well, well, if it ain’t the Duke of Davington himsel’.” Gareth heard a gravelly voice come from behind him, and he swiveled backwards, squinting at the stranger. He grinned when he saw the familiar face of the man who had hailed him by name.
“Colin Farrington, you old devil!” He laughed, slapping his closest friend’s back with one hand while shaking his hand effusively with the other. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d have mistaken you for somebody else!”
Colin Farrington had attended Eton College alongside Gareth. They had been in the same year and became instant friends. Their friendship had not dwindled after leaving school, and they remained great friends and confidants. And now, here he was, larger than life, still sporting his trademark, well-kept mustache.
“Aye, well, I could say the same,” Colin said in his thick Scottish accent. He took a seat beside Gareth and motioned to the barkeep with a little wag of his finger. “You ain’t lookin’ too bad yerself. Mind ye, I could swear you’ve put on some extra jowls since we last met.”
Gareth stifled a laugh by swallowing another mouthful of his drink. He had not forgotten that his friend’s blunt tongue came with a teasing humor.
“A tankard of ale, laddie,” Colin announced to the barkeep, and when the lad was out of earshot, he turned to Gareth, smiled, and asked, “Wha’ brings you back here, my friend?”
“Hyacinth.” Gareth said bluntly, shifting as his stomach tightened at the mention of his sister’s name. He stared into his gin and tonic with a sigh, feeling his fraternal burden anew. A prickly sensation traveled down his spine as he said, “She’s supposed to make her Season debut soon.”
“Already?” Colin’s brows raised. He appeared genuinely surprised. “I could’a sworn it was only yesterday that we were all chasing squirrels in Old Sumney’s wood. Ye still recall, aye?” Gareth nodded, and Colin must have noticed something amiss with his friend’s demeanor, for he added, “Say, ye dinnae look too happy with the idea of your sister’s debut coming up.”
“Indeed, I’m not.” Gareth nodded gravely. “She’s all grown up now, and she’s due to debut in less than thirty days, yet she still acts like an impudent brat. She’s got my aunt Lucinda all worked up.”
His friend sniggered, wrapping his palms around the foaming mug of ale the barkeep had presented to him before lifting it to his lips. He drank deeply, sighing with satisfaction before finally plunking down the now half-full tankard onto the bar. He gave a soft belch before speaking. “Aye, the little bairn was always hot headed. You recall that time when we’d just come back from Eton for the summer and she played that trick on us with the door and the bucket of pig swill?”
Gareth hid his expression of distaste behind his glass. “How could I forget?” he asked. “That was her idea of a fine joke. Still is, I expect. I remember spending days trying to wash off the foul stench.”
Colin laughed. “Aye, but ne’er worry. Hyacinth might be as stubborn as a mule, but she ain’t stupid. Those were just childish pranks, and I dinnae think she’ll try anything like that again in a hurry.” He paused to quickly down the rest of his drink, then turned to Gareth. “Say, I’m feeling a mighty thirst for more ale. Care to join me, lad?”
“Who says no to a free drink? A gin and tonic, please. Better make it a double,” Gareth joked, trying to push away his worries about his sister. Colin was right about something.
“Hyacinth is stubborn, true, and her behavior is often childish, but she’s certainly not stupid, as you say. She always knows exactly what she’s doing.
Colin chortled loudly. “Aye, lad, that’s for sure.”
He signaled the barkeep again, ordering another ale and a refill for Gareth. The two men continued their conversation contentedly in the serene, masculine atmosphere of the club, recounting with much laughter many of their old exploits, and getting slowly drunk.
When the early morning sun had first seeped into the room, slipping under the door and around the shutters, Abigail paid it no attention. Typically, she would have been ready to sing to her heart’s content along with the birds. But that particular morning, she languished in misery on the great four-poster bed, the apprehension which had been her constant companion throughout the previous night now accompanied by a new feeling—disgust.
She groaned into her pillows, feeling sicker than ever.
She had lain in bed long after retiring to her chambers immediately after dinner—staring at the ceiling, thinking, tossing, turning. She had bitten all her fingernails to the quick and cried a river of tears. When she had eventually managed a few hours of fitful sleep, she had woken feeling excruciatingly tired and bleary-eyed.
Her mind felt tortured, and a nausea that refused to budge had settled in her stomach like a heavy stone. She desperately wanted to crawl back under the sheets and fall into a healing sleep, to dream of a bright, happy future. A future she now knew would never come to pass.
She stood up on trembling legs and padded across her room to open wide the window shutters to let in the light. She rested her head against the cool windowpane and stared out onto the cobbled courtyard below, her thoughts turning inevitably to the events of the previous night.
She once more fought back tears as she thought of how sad her parents would be if they knew the future that awaited their only daughter. When she had lost them at the age of thirteen and her guardianship had gone to her grandfather, Abigail had hoped for a promising future. She’d imagined that the love and warmth she had gotten from her deceased parents would continue to flow from her new custodian. Sadly, she couldn’t have been more wrong.
She knew getting her grandfather to see her point of view would be futile. An argument would never work, for she was merely his ward, and no amount of disputation would change his mind about the marriage. She bleakly recalled the conversation that had taken place between them in the drawing room after dinner, when the viscount had taken his leave.
“I find your behavior quite despicable, Grandfather,” she had calmly said, staring into his rheumy eyes. “I have always hoped you might harbor some sympathy for my feelings, but your actions have proved I was wrong to do so.”
“It’s all for the best,” he had simply said.
“I will not marry the viscount,” she insisted with newfound bravery. “I cannot conceive the thought of anything worse than being the wife of a man two decades older than myself, whom I have never so much as been introduced to, and certainly dislike. This marriage you propose will never happen, I assure you.”
“You silly, presumptuous chit!” her grandfather had shouted, his eyes flashing with anger. “You are past your first Season. You are no longer a child. You should be thanking me for finding you a suitable husband!”
“Thanking you?” she had cried, “I have nothing to thank you for! Nothing at all! I would rather remain a spinster all my life than marry that man!”
Abigail knew her aggressive approach would not help her and that it would be folly to continue it. So, she decided to take a different, pacifying tack, swallowing the lump of fury in her throat. It was hard for her to hold his stare, but she did so as she meekly said, “Grandfather, you’ve always taught me that one should fight for what one wants.”
Her grandfather had sardonically regarded her for a moment, then said, “So, this behavior it is my fault, then, for being over-indulgent?”
“It is my job to see you do not end up an old spinster.”
“You are being ridiculous,” she had said softly.
“I beg your pardon, young lady?” he had demanded.
“Grandfather, I am only twenty. Surely, I can wait a few more years for marriage.”
“If no one offered for you when you were in the first bloom of youth, who will now, after a failed Season, and who knows how many more? I have done my duty, and you will soon be a viscountess.”
“I have no wish to be a viscountess, especially not a deeply unhappy one.”
In a characteristic show of temper when crossed, his fists balled, and the veins in his neck strained with effort. He spat out, “I’ve ensured someone will have you, someone who can support you, whom I trust, and by God, that will be the end of this obstinacy from you!”
Abigail had been unable to catch her breath or stop the tears from burning her eyes at that point. Her throat felt cramped, as though a noose were closing around it. “So, is it because you pity me that you’ve arranged my marriage to an old man whom I don’t even know? A man I could not possibly ever grow to love? A man who clearly does not value me or my opinions? I tell you, I have no wish to marry Lord Chesingwood.”
“You will marry him,” her grandfather growled, his face growing redder by the second.
“Why must I?” she had demanded, her voice raw. She curled her fists below the table. “I have no wish to marry at all at present. Indeed, why must I do so? Grandfather, if you love me as you say you do, please consider my happiness.” She had not even realized tears were fast spilling down her cheeks. “Please, Grandfather, allow me the freedom to choose my suitor, and perhaps I might find one whom my heart truly desires.”
In response, the old man had simply pushed back his chair, sent her a cold look, and left the room.
Abigail opened her eyes, a heavy disquiet settling on her soul. Before going up to bed after the argument with her grandfather, laden with a sense of dread, she had wondered how he expected to enforce the marriage. Deep down, she knew and had already accepted the truth—he had every intention of making her marry the viscount. And whatever she did to try to escape the situation, she would not succeed.
A knock on the door disturbed her bleak thoughts. She raised her head. “Come in,” she said.
The door opened to reveal Edith, her maid, cradling a big basket of clean, folded laundry. She set it down on the floor and curtsied with a friendly smile, “Good morning, my lady.”
Weakly, Abigail smiled back at the mousy-haired girl. “Good morning, Edith.”
“I have your clean laundry here. Miss Silverman bade me bring it up to you.”
“Thank you, ‘tis most kind. Have you—have you seen my grandfather today?”
“Oh, yes, my lady. The earl left before sunrise for a hunt, he said. He told Miss Silverman he’d be returning before noon.”
“I see.” Abigail’s lips curved in a bitter smile. How typical of him, to go off on a jaunt, enjoying himself, having just ruined the rest of her life.
“I took the liberty of ordering up hot water for your bath, milady,” Edith said, clearly oblivious of her mistress’s somber mood. “It should be arriving soon.”
“Yes, thank you. I should like to bathe,” Abigail murmured distractedly, looking out of the window, disconsolate.
Edith hummed happily under her breath as she performed her duties. It made Abigail slightly envious. What lucky fortune to be free to do as one pleases. “Breakfast is ready in the dining hall, milady,” Edith put in as she stowed away the clean laundry.
“Oh. I’m not hungry. I’ll just have some tea.”
The maidservant paused in her work, looking suddenly unsure as she peered at Abigail’s face. “But Cook has made your favorite, milady—crumpets with French vanilla cream.”
Abigail shook her head. “That is kind of her, but I have no appetite. Perhaps later. And I shall eat in my room as always.”
“Yes, milady,” said Edith, sounding deflated as she returned to her work.
A quick thought struck Abigail then.
“I shall also be going out today. I shall bathe and you will help me to dress. Please select a suitable outfit, will you?” she said.
“Yes, milady,” Edith said, nodding. Any further conversation was prevented by a knock on the door, which Edith answered, and two footmen entered bearing pails of hot water for Abigail’s bath.
When Abigail stepped into Spencer’s Inn, it was thoroughly busy on its breakfast rush. There was a frazzled look on Grace’s face, and she had two trays of empty plates balanced on her arm, sashaying her way past. Abigail kept her head down, immediately wishing she could disappear into the wall.
“Abigail?” She quickly glanced up. Grace had sidled up to her, a concerned look on her face. “Are you—”
“Oh, Mrs. Spencer,” Abigail quickly burst out, her composure forsaking her. “I’m sorry, but I have no one else to turn to.”
“Abigail, is everything all right?” The older woman’s brows furrowed. She did a double take, staring at Abigail’s face. “Have you . . . been crying?”
Abigail wrung her hands. “Come with me,” she heard Grace say as she quickly turned away on her heels.
She took her to the usual spot: the back of the kitchen. Abigail, grateful to be away from the noisy din, waited for Grace to dispose of the dirty plates before she spoke. “My grandfather has arranged for my betrothal to his business acquaintance, Viscount Chesingwood, a man twice my age. I don’t know what to do!”
Grace’s mouth fell open, shock etched across her features. “That’s—I— why, that’s nothing but preposterous! Surely, your grandfather wouldn’t be so cruel as to marry you to a gentleman so much older.”
Tears stained Abigail’s cheeks. She brushed them away and said, “I—I’m afraid it is true. I am set to wed the viscount when he returns from his business trip this fortnight. Oh, Mrs. Spencer, I don’t want to be betrothed like this, especially not to a man I have nothing in common with. I can’t imagine being trapped in a lovelorn marriage for the rest of my life.”
Mrs. Spencer’s gaze was sympathetic. She thought for a moment, then she asked, “Do you have any family who might plead for your cause and try to change your grandfather’s mind?”
“Yes.” Abigail sniffed. “My aunt and uncle. They—they paid me a few visits soon after the demise of my parents. But after a time, they stopped coming, and I have not seen them since. My—my grandfather . . .”
“My grandfather told me that my Aunt Priscilla and Uncle Ethan were only interested in money and not in my wellbeing at all, and so he sent them away. I—I haven’t had contact with them for years.”
“Good grief!” Grace looked bewildered. “This is utterly preposterous. Listen, my dear girl, to what I’m about to tell you. This cannot continue any longer. Your grandfather clearly has no sympathy for you, and he certainly doesn’t care about you.”
“I know it well . . .” Abigail murmured sorrowfully.
“And that’s why you need to decide what matters most.”
“How can I choose? I mean, it is not as if I have a choice in the matter.”
“But you do!” Grace insisted. “And the decisions I’m talking about are the sort you’ll likely soon have to make to escape the fate your grandfather has planned for you, and for the chance of finding the happy future you seek. I know you want that greatly.”
“Very much, Mrs. Spencer,” Abigail whispered hoarsely.
“Hence, such weighty decisions demand a greater sacrifice.” She paused, then added, “What I have in mind will mean you leaving the manor.”
“Leaving the manor? Whatever can you mean?” Abigail cried, panicked.
“You must run away.”
Abigail recoiled, taking a step back, her face a perfect picture of shock and disbelief. “R—run away?”
“‘Tis the only thing you can do, to manage your fate.”
“I can’t run away,” Abigail said “I have nowhere to go. I have lived here all my life. I am penniless. If I decide to leave on my own accord, how will I live?”
“Henry will help.”
“Your husband? But how?”
“He is planning to make a trip to London in two days’ time, to procure some supplies for the inn. My cousin Mary’s husband runs an employment agency. His name is Prescott Barnes but he’s widely known as Mr. Prescott. You can go with Henry, and he’ll take you to the employment agency in London. I can write Mr. Prescott a letter giving you a good reference.” She paused, then added, “But I must be sure it is what you want, dear. Your consent is everything.”
Abigail gnawed at the inside of her cheeks with her teeth. She didn’t exactly have much of a choice, did she? She had to take the chance . . . it was the only opportunity for her to escape her grandfather and his plans for a forced marriage to the viscount. She also trusted Grace wholeheartedly. She had never had a reason not to.
“I will do it. But . . . are you certain Mr. Prescott will be able to help me?”
“Definitely. All it takes is putting in a good word for you and, by the looks of things, that would not be such a hard thing for me to do.” She smiled affectionately at Abigail.
“Oh, Mrs. Spencer,” Abigail breathed out, surprising herself by throwing her arms around the innkeeper’s shoulders. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
Grace patted her back. “Do not worry any further. I assure you, everything will work out perfectly.”
When Abigail pulled away, she saw the solemn confidence written on the older woman’s face, and she relaxed. If there was anyone she could depend on, it was Grace Spencer. She was the only person in the world who would never let her down.