From behind the desk of Mr. Greenfield’s office, Simon Brent raked a hand through his light brown hair. His eyes scanned the copious sheets of white paper that littered the mahogany desk before him. His instinct for architecture kicked in, dismantling and rearranging the words on the pages.
Simon sat dazed in the office, sinking further into the upholstery. His thoughts were a jumbled mess, roiling and spinning in his mind. Every part of him fought the situation before him, disbelief clouding his senses. He kept staring at the documents, eyes wide with astonishment.
“Surely,” he said, after a while of having his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth, “you must be mistaken!”
Sifting through the contents of the papers in front of him told an entirely different story. He could see his name scrawled through the document in black ink. Over the course of reading, he was beginning to regard the words with marked disfavor.
Mr. Greenfield, the lawyer, smiled at him, a gesture of encouragement. But instead, his blood ran cold in his veins—not from fear but from bewilderment.
He threaded his fingers through his hair, unable to tear his eyes from the deed on the polished table. For one, Simon was an architect from a middle-class family. He lived all his life away from the ton of London, without worries clouding his thoughts. Now, he was in a dilemma.
He asked the question again, unable to form any more words in his mind, “How is this even possible?”
“Mr. Brent,” the lawyer said, his tone filled with an odd reluctance. “His Lordship, The Earl of Cranston, has passed away.”
“The Earl of Cranston?” Simon mused, searching his mind to check if the name sounded familiar.
After a few moments of searching and filtering names through his mind, Simon came to a conclusion. He knew nothing of the man whom the lawyer talked about with such reverence.
Even if he did not understand what was happening to him, Simon was intelligent enough to know that the earldom title was passed from father to son. His father had been a well-known doctor with a practice on Harley Street. Their family lived together in their large villa in Isleworth. Not even his father was that close to royalty.
Simon was the eldest son, but he knew in his bones that he was an ordinary man. He had climbed his way through the rungs of society, establishing himself as a successful architect in London. The only time he met aristocrats was when they approached him for projects.
“No offence, Mr. Greenfield, but I have no relations whatsoever to this earl you speak of. There must have been a misunderstanding,” Simon said, wiping the sweat off his brow with one hand and trying to keep himself stable.
“Tracing the lineage was difficult, Mr. Brent, and the situation is dire,” the lawyer replied, dispelling any perceived notions of falseness. “I can assure you that no mistake was conducted during the trace. The title and every asset in the earl’s possession now belong to you.”
“Tracing the lineage? What might that mean?” Simon asked.
“You are a distant cousin of His Lordship. So distant, in fact, that it took quite a while to find you.”
Simon calmed his raging heart with a deep breath before speaking. “The Earl of Cranston must have an heir or someone not so distant to take on the title. There should be a right fit somewhere in this lineage you speak of.”
Mr. Greenfield let out a strained sigh before adjusting his spectacles on the bridge of his nose. “The case is quite complicated, Mr. Brent. Apart from you, only females remain in the lineage.”
He paused to take a deep breath. “The only heir, Mr. Joseph Emerson, passed away on a voyage to the West Indies. In the absence of a male relative to take up the title, the estate would be transferred to his children. But alas, there is still a male relative present. And that is—”
“Me,” he completed Mr. Greenfield’s sentence, the pieces coming together in his head.
Shaking his head, Simon leafed through the sheets once more. The deed of the estate was bequeathed to him, among other things. What caught his eye was the large fortune attached to the earldom. Apparently, the former earl had a ton of investments and certain business interests that provided massive returns. Simon’s tongue became heavy at the sight of such a sum.
“This is the income per annum?” he asked, the tension pressing on his shoulders even more.
The lawyer nodded. “His Lordship left behind quite a large amount of money upon his passing. By taking on the earldom mantle, everything is transferred to your name. You take up all responsibility attached to the title.”
Simon was an architect, interested in building lasting edifices and drawing up magnificent plans. But he was a businessman first. Seeing the large fortune set off some spark in him, setting fire to the remaining traces of reluctance in his mind. Slowly, he skimmed the account ledgers once more.
“This is at least eight thousand per annum,” he whispered, cautioning himself in time to suppress the crass whistle in his throat. “Are you sure that I am not just an elaborate mistake? Forgive me if I come off as obstinate, but I would not take what is not rightfully mine.”
“Oh, you need not worry,” Mr. Greenfield replied. “The investigators are never wrong in finding out the truth. The title is yours by right, Mr. Brent. If you will accept it, that is.”
Mr. Greenfield pushed the inkwell and quill to Simon, sliding the papers across to him as well.
Simon thought about everything he could accomplish with the title. The income alone was to die for. It warped his mind, sending him into a trance of his own making.
The prospect of having an estate thrilled him, but he couldn’t bring his fingers to move. Simon knew that he could be rich by just appending his signature, but a part of him knew that with a large title came serious responsibility.
Am I ready for this? he asked himself, muttering under his breath.
Somehow, it felt like he was being greedy. His family was comfortable with the life they had—even able to afford the fees for his younger brother, Sam, to attend Oxford. His mother was a good woman, using their wealth to help the commoners in society. Yet, Simon couldn’t resist the offer before him.
“Mr. Brent,” the lawyer said in a low voice. “I know you might have second thoughts, but it is your inheritance by blood. Nothing can take that away.”
Still dazed, Simon picked up the quill and twirled it for a bit between his fingers. He thought of the opportunities that would come with taking up the title. The upper echelons of London Society would recognise him, and Simon was not going to forfeit the chance to be recognized as an excellent architect.
Dipping the quill into the inkwell, Simon Brent knew that his life was going to change. Not only would he take all the fortune left behind, but also he would have to shoulder the responsibility of running a large estate by himself. He was going to be the Earl of Cranston!
Swiftly, he appended his signature on the relevant papers, wondering what would await him with this magnificent change. Simon wondered if he would be addressed with respect, just like the lawyer did with the former earl.
With a bleak expression, he studied the papers again with a lopsided smile. He quelled the laughter clawing at his insides, assuming his chiselled features into a mask of calm. He was a different man now.
“What is that?” Simon asked, pulling two sheets of brown paper from the messy desk. He held it to his face, scanning the documents.
“Those,” Mr. Greenfield breathed, “are birth certificates. For the daughters of the late earl, Lady Melodie and Felicity Emerson. As the new Earl of Cranston, it is your responsibility to dispose of their fates.”
Simon’s face morphed into a frown. “Dispose of their fates?”
“It is your decision, my lord, to either chase them onto the streets or have them remain in the house with you. As the new Lord Cranston, their fates lie in your hands.”
With every passing minute, Simon was coming to regret his decision. When he couldn’t sink any further into the leathery upholstery, he began wringing his fingers. For all he knew, the children were in mourning. Having lost their father, throwing them to the streets felt like something a beast would do. And Simon was not a beast.
“I only turned six and twenty this morning, Mr. Greenfield. Do I have to make this decision right now?”
The lawyer shook his head and beamed with smiles. “You do not, my lord. You can think it over. But the seat of the earl must not remain empty for long.”
Simon nodded, thoughts descending on his mind as he walked out of the office and onto Broadway Street.
“Hold there,” Mrs. Portia Brent said with contemptuous disdain leaking into her voice. “Have you gone insane?”
Simon wanted to defend himself, but his mother pressed on. “You want to turn down a prestigious title? All for what?”
“Mother,” Simon replied, holding his breath. “I know nothing about owning an estate or becoming an earl in London. Nor do I even want to wish to. You must understand the responsibility that comes with taking the title.”
Mrs. Brent fanned herself with a lavender silk fan, increasing the pace at which her hands moved within every second. Simon knew it was due to the annoyance his mother felt. Since he came back from his meeting with Mr. Greenfield, she pestered him endlessly for information.
“Also, the fate of two upstanding ladies will fall into my hands. I cannot cast innocent people on the streets after their father passed. They are still in mourning.”
“Do you think of us as beastly?” Mrs. Brent asked, a vein popping out on her forehead. “We will never chase innocent women to live their remaining lives on the streets. We have a daughter of our own.”
Simon heaved a sigh and reclined further into his seat. He was weary of discussing the matter with his family. His mother was more than excited about the turn of events, launching into a dance when he told her about the earldom.
At the other end of the living room, his sister snorted. Simon turned his head around, hoping to scold her for interrupting their discussion. But his sister was smarter than being caught in the act. Instead, she hummed and focused on the embroidery she was doing. Esther was sly that way.
“There are no sides here, Simon. We cannot change this windfall that has befallen us. Instead, we should embrace our stroke of good fortune!” his mother continued.
Simon heaved a sigh, his mask of calm cracking slowly. “A few hours ago, we all jested about your connections with the ton. I am sure that you did not realise the truth behind your mysterious connections till now. Surely, this is all a joke!”
His mother lowered the fan from her bosom, staring at Simon for a long, hard minute. He stared back, unflinching in his hard gaze. When his mother blinked, Simon couldn’t help the smile that crept across his face.
“This is an incredible turn of events, Simon. I have always had connections in society. Despite your constant teasing at the dinner table, look what came to us,” she said.
Mrs. Brent paused for a moment before clearing her throat, and Simon knew that he was in for a long lesson. After he left the lawyer’s office, he had some time to rearrange his thoughts in the carriage. Just a few weeks ago, he rose to recognition through a competition where he came first. Now, he was working with the renowned Sir Digby Knowles on a project supported by the Crown.
“The title will provide us with a lot more than wealth, Simon,” Mrs. Brent said. “It will give us a raise in social status, bringing us among the prosperous ton of London. It gives us all an edge!”
His mother cut in. “Simon, we finally get the chance to make advantageous matches for Esther. And the rest of the Emerson sisters, of course. Imagine if your sister married a duke!”
Mrs. Brent squealed at the word ‘Duke,’ and sweat broke out on her brow. Simon could see his mother in thought, and he already knew what was on her mind. In seconds, she was grinning from ear to ear. It only made Simon weary.
“Mother, might I remind you that we are comfortable?” Simon asked, wanting the conversation to end quickly. “We have enough wealth to sustain us, Sam is in Oxford, and I am an apprentice to Sir Digby Knowles. In the next coming weeks, the construction of the village will start! A project from the Crown itself!”
Mrs. Brent studied Simon for a moment. “Even if you become an earl, you can still work with Sir Knowles. I do not see how it hinders you from your profession.”
“Mother,” Simon began, his voice weak from the argument. “We will be depriving two young women of their inheritance. I do not see how this is right and fair. Maybe the older of the daughters should take it all.”
“But we won’t,” his mother replied, her voice higher than usual. It only meant she was close to anger. “They will be well taken care of, and each will get a room in the estate. Our family will be even larger, and Esther might have someone else to talk to. Growing up in a family of men must be hard for her.”
“Mother, she has other friends,” Simon objected and turned to his sister. “Francesca and Catherine are your friends, are they not?”
Esther smiled wickedly for a moment before her eyes turned misty with tears, dropping the embroidery. “Is it so bad to have another sister?”
“You’d be letting us all down if you reject this,” Mrs. Brent said. “Even Esther is unhappy with the decision you are about to make.”
” Accepting the title will secure the best future for our family,” she added, a subtle hint of appeal in her voice.
After a lot of deliberation, Simon closed his eyes and retreated into his head. The arrangement was without fault. Lady Melodie and Lady Felicity would be well taken care of. His new status would not impede his profession, and considering the large fortune attached, Simon assured himself that he was doing the right thing.
With a sigh, he accepted his fate and the huge responsibility that awaited him as the new Earl of Cranston.
Early June 1820
Melodie Emerson smoothed the creases of her black silk peignoir and looked out the window at the streaks of rain that slowly poured from the dismal gray skies. The weather had been bad for weeks, grey clouds covering the whole of London. Melodie couldn’t dispute that her emotions were like the weather. Tumultuous and dismal. Her body was tense, shivering even though the house was warm.
“Sister,” Felicity’s nasal tone cut through Melodie’s thoughts like lightning. “You have been brooding for far too long. Some time in the sun—”
“There is no sun outside,” Melodie replied, trying to make herself sound happy for her younger sister.
She had been counting down the days after her father’s death. Every day was a struggle, trying to be strong. Melodie missed her father greatly, particularly his overbearing presence in the house. Now that he was gone, the house suddenly seemed empty.
“It was a metaphor,” Felicity said with a pout. “You spend too much time looking out from the window of your chambers. I am sure that you didn’t even hear me come in.”
Melodie sighed. Her sister was trying to keep herself happy despite the sadness that welled in the house with every passing day. Felicity was the very picture of loveliness and light, brightening Melodie’s mood with her words.
“Well done,” she told her younger sister and brushed her blonde hair back with a weary smile. “But you ought to be under tutelage now. Have you exhausted the books in the library?”
Felicity ignored Melodie’s question and peered through the glass of the window at the streets. “Are we expecting someone?” she asked. “Is that why you have been looking at the roads for days on end?”
Melodie could feel the grief clawing at her insides, turning her blood cold. She shivered again and stared at the lazy drops of water as they sluiced their way gently down the glass.
“I do not know,” Melodie replied. “Maybe I just like staring at the rain. Peaceful, is it not?”
Felicity stared at her, green eyes flitting around. Standing just behind the window, her blonde hair looked even whiter. The faint light bathed her in a gentle glow, burnishing her pale skin. Her beautiful appearance matched her inner gentleness and kindness.
“I’m sure the man will be kind. Maybe if we treat him well, he will consider our plight and let us stay,” Felicity said, clinging to hope as usual.
“He’s a distant cousin, and we do not know a thing about him,” Melodie replied, fighting the tears that stung her eyes.
“The new earl will let us stay here at Cranston. It is our home,” she spoke, her voice quaking. “Only a beast would chase us away.”
“A beast? Are all relatives not beastly?”
“Look at Aunt Julia and Cousin Stephanie. Are they not beastly enough?”
Felicity laughed, the quake in her voice vanished. “I have the feeling that he won’t be like them.”
“Very well then,” Melodie said, barely holding back the tears. “If you believe he is kind, then I do too.”
Turning to face the wall, Melodie knew she had to be stronger. She couldn’t help the tears that slipped down her cheeks. Crying at the slightest opportunity would be bad for Felicity’s demeanor. With their father gone, Melodie expected their cousin, Joseph Emerson, to quickly return from his voyage abroad. When she heard of his passing, the grief only became worse. Melodie tried to hide it from her sister, but it was only for so long.
She got up from her seat and went to her closet. There was only one thing she could do to quell the grief and torment that tore her mind apart. And Melodie wanted to get away from everything for a minute.
After changing her clothes and pulling up her riding breeches, Melodie stared at her reflection in the mirror. She did not possess any of Felicity’s beauty that her sister inherited from their mother. Instead, she had her father’s dark hair and blue eyes. She certainly didn’t catch many male gazes, and Melodie was quite content with that.
“It is raining, Sister. Riding in these unpleasant conditions is certainly not advised,” Felicity said and folded her arms across her bodice. “You might catch a cold.”
Melodie looked at her sister with fondness. “A cold is the least of my worries. Besides, you should not worry. Some lemon tea will chase the cold away.”
Felicity stared at her before leaving, her hair bouncing around her as she left. Melodie took to the stairs, three at a time, towards the stables. Once outside, the rain bore down on her with an intensity she wasn’t prepared for. But her troubles were far more than the rain.
Soon, she was riding into the fields of the estate with the house behind her. The horse sped, its muscles churning beneath Melodie. It calmed her soul, reminding her of the races she used to have with her father. They would race all over the estate, placing wagers on whom was faster. She didn’t have the faintest idea that her father allowed her to win every time, but she never ceased to claim victory with passion.
Melodie pulled the reins softly, forcing the horse, Balios, to grind to a halt. Then she pulled the hood of the cloak away from her hair and let the rain continue to pour down on her. It soaked through her riding dress in minutes, and the sounds of thunder muted her cries of rage and grief.
“Father!” Melodie wailed, climbing down from the horse and sinking down to the soft earth. “Why did you leave us?”
She tasted the tears in her mouth as the rain continued to drench her with fervour. Melodie expected her dear cousin to return and take up the title so that the earldom would stay in their family. When Cousin Joe passed away, Melodie assumed the position of the heir to take up the inheritance of their father. Without it, they would be cast onto the streets with nothing.
A few weeks after the passing of Joshua Emerson—the Earl of Cranston—Melodie saw the lawyer walk in. She clung to the hope that without any other living male relatives, she would inherit everything. But the reverse was the case.
They would inherit nothing except the annual returns from her deceased mother’s estate. According to the solicitor, Mr. Greenfield, there was a distant male relative that was still alive. But to Melodie, he was a complete stranger. And they were at his mercy.
She turned around to look at the estate from the edge of the fields one last time before the stranger’s arrival to take up the title. Melodie expected him a few days ago, but he did not show his face. The thought of leaving her childhood home sent shivers running through her. She couldn’t bear the thought of seeing Felicity cry when their things were thrown out.
The future was unknown, and there was a very high possibility that they would lose everything. Melodie wanted to condone her sister’s childish fantasies of a kind earl, but every nerve in her body fought against the thoughts. She had no idea who the man was, and odds were, he would not take pity on them.
Her grief turned to fury at her father for not telling her everything before he passed away. For letting her believe that the inheritance would be hers if anything happened to him and Cousin Joe. Apart from the meagre income from her mother’s estate, they were soon to be commoners. Even with Melodie’s savings, she was sure that it would not be long before they sank into debt.
Melodie’s thoughts ran wild in her head, spinning out of control. To her, everything was dull and empty. A few more weeks and they would be out on the streets without any money to keep them afloat. More than ever, she missed her father’s advice.
Laying on the ground completely, she closed her eyes and let the rain continue to wash over her. It brought her some modicum of peace and happy memories, a welcome respite from her grief and fears.
“I hope you are right, Felicity,” she said to the howling wind.
All Melodie could do was wait and hope for the best. She was determined to be polite and keep her emotions in check so that the new earl would take pity on them.
A sigh later, she muttered under her breath a prayer that the new earl had a heart, at least.
Simon cursed the weather under his breath, wanting some sunlight to break through the heavy grey clouds that covered the skies. He waited for a few weeks, like his mother suggested, to let the mud harden so that the horses would be able to travel faster.
Still, the journey to Bedfordshire was frighteningly slow. His back hurt from sitting too much in one place, and the weather was doing nothing but add to his already sour mood. His eyes flitted to the dark wallpaper of the carriage’s interior. It reminded him of the horse his father purchased when he was little.
“I hope I get there on time,” Simon said, staring out at the grey skies and the long shadows. Even though he knew that time was on his hands, he could not help but acknowledge the fear that sat in the pit of his stomach.
As the carriage crossed into the countryside, Simon gaped at the beauty. He knew that Isleworth was beautiful, but Bedfordshire was a marvelous sight indeed. Fields of greenery sprawled on both sides, occasionally interrupted by enormous edifices rising into the air.
While he was used to the busy streets of Broadway and Isleworth, the estates of Bedfordshire suddenly made Simon nervous. His fingers trembled, and his thoughts swirled with every bump in the road. He had never seen such opulence in front of him. To think that one of those estates might be his inheritance filled him with dread.
Simon tapped his thighs with his fingers, trying desperately to quell the tension in his bones. He wished his family had come with him in the carriage, but his mother blatantly refused, saying the new earl was supposed to arrive first and take care of things before his family did.
“Foolish traditions,” Simon muttered.
He looked out again as the carriage carried on deeper into Bedfordshire. As he learned from the solicitor and his mother’s constant discussion, there was a lot of responsibility attached to the title. None that Simon was ready for.
Having known that his delay would only cause the Emerson sisters more tension, he urged the coachman to make the carriage go faster. The wind whipped at his face, adding color to his cheeks. It relieved his nerves a little, giving him time for deep breaths.
Simon rehearsed his speech in the carriage, wondering how to approach the sisters. Their fates rested in his hands, and if either of them acted out of turn, Simon was sure that he could understand their plight. A stranger from nowhere was taking over their father’s title and inheritance, taking everything from them. Surely, they would be angry.
If he were in their shoes, Simon knew that he would be brimming with rage and hatred for the man who wanted to take his father’s place and possibly cast them onto the streets. He felt their pain now more than ever that he was getting closer to Cranston.
Now, you must act imperiously. Simon heard his mother’s voice ring in his mind and groaned.
To the Emerson sisters, he was nothing but a middle-class commoner. Acting like he owned the place would only irritate them further. For one, he was afraid of the reception he might receive upon his arrival.
I don’t want to be a beast much more than I already am, he said to himself, straightening the creases on his suit.
His mother made him visit the tailor before he left for Bedfordshire to get clothes that were befitting for an earl. Dressed in Frederick Colebatch’s expensive design, Simon felt overdressed. When he looked in the mirror earlier, his own reflection was gone. In his place was an earl dressed in black superfine over grey pantaloons. The waistcoat was dark purple with gold buttons that heavily contrasted with the overall colour scheme. He saw himself as an authority, a force to be reckoned with, but he still did not want to wear the expensive attire. He wanted to appear simple and pleasing to the eyes and not scare the sisters out of their minds.
Now, all the pride was gone. In its place was a sympathy that he welcomed. If it had been up to Simon, he would not have taken the title at all. But the pressure on him was enough to make him accept the decision of his mother.
The earldom was going to make his family prosperous, no doubt. Enough to push them from the middling sort into the upper class of society. If he didn’t take the title, the earldom would cease to exist. All the properties would be broken up and sold one after the other. A family history gone with the wind.
Simon tipped his head back, hoping that his family and the Emerson sisters would get along. His sister, Esther, was about the same age as Felicity—the youngest of the sisters. With his sister’s attitude towards rascality, she got on well with other people, and he prayed that the same might happen again.
“I am not chasing them out,” he decided one time too many, assuring himself that the sisters would stay, just like his mother had said.
A tiny bump sent a sliver of pain through Simon’s broad frame. It roused him from sleep, and he turned to look out the window. The buildings were more cluttered now, large edifices rising from the earth. His mouth hung open as he stared at the sight, placing value on every structure he set his eyes on.
“Where are we?” he asked the coachman.
“Cranston village, my lord,” he replied curtly before becoming silent again.
Simon could not believe his ears. Suddenly, all his fears came rushing back. His mind could not handle what his eyes were seeing. As an architect, he was employed to draw out building plans and map out structures. There was no way he could manage everything he was seeing. He was not in any way ready. Anxiety plucked at his mind, shredding whatever courage he had built during the trip.
Soon, Cranston Place came into view as the carriage ground to a halt. Simon opened the carriage himself instead of waiting for a servant like his mother told him to. His hopes of managing an estate were dashed even further as he raised his head.
The manor stood there as if conjured out of a child’s playbook. Every stone was even and square, a blinding alabaster white that was set to perfection. Simon stood there and watched, his mouth agape at the edifice of concrete and glass.
Towering turrets marked the ends of the building’s wings, standing on the four cardinal points of the property. A dome rose and arced behind the roof at the front, and Simon could see the weak sunlight sparking off it. The facade’s broad sweep faced the drive, enclosed with gardens and hedges.
Nature surrounded the enormous building on both sides, embracing it as if the house were a part of itself. Columns held the roof, polished white, just like the walls. Around the sides, climbing flowers bloomed, colours sparkling despite the weather. A large lake was in front, with water pouring out of a marble sculpture. The water was clear as day, and lilies floated on top of the still water.
Built with perfect symmetry, Simon was much more than in awe. His eyes were glazed over, observing the palatial residence. Everything was perfect, even much more than he had imagined.
Does this belong to me? he thought, the sheer elegance and grandeur sapping all reason from his mind.
Simon descended from the carriage, apprehension gripping him like a vise. He tried to keep still, to quell the shivers and fear that ran up his back. But his body would not respond.
Taking a deep breath, Simon walked up the stairs.