Angelfield House, Edendale, 1815
The smoke had long since dispersed. That horrible crackling sound of wood being consumed by flames was no longer, an eerie quiet settling all around. It should have felt peaceful after the chaos that had ensued not too long ago, but Emerson felt as if those flames had taken all peace with them. Nothing but turbulent horror remained within him, slowly eating away at him.
The cold was slowly beginning to seep through his trousers. Snow crunched under the weight of his body as he sank closer to the ground, his knees already numb. The pristine white of the landscape before him was now marred with black soot and the remains of the once towering manor that had occupied the space. Now, there was nothing left. Nothing at all.
Emerson wanted to cry. His throat grew painfully raw, his body shaking. Whether it was from the chill of the wintery air or the horror he felt at the sight before him, he didn’t know. But those tears would not come, no matter how hard he willed it. With painstakingly dry eyes, he could not look away from the carnage.
“My lord ….” Behind him, his butler called out to him. John Sparkes, or Sparkes as Emerson preferred to refer to him, sounded concerned. Emerson could feel his presence over his shoulder, hovering.
He didn’t respond to him. He had no words.
It all happened so fast. So, so fast.
“My lord, perhaps it is best to get you out of those clothes,” came another voice. His valet, Francis. “It is torn and blackened. It will not protect you against the cold.”
Emerson ignored him as well. They were the only two servants who had remained. The others had left at Sparkes’ behest, even though they had been the ones to put out the raging fire. They would be rewarded for their efforts, Sparkes had reassured them, but for now, it was time they returned to their families. Emerson envied them. He had no more family.
The family he once had now laid before him, deceased. If only he had been here when it started. If only he had arrived back home in time to save them all. If only that wooden beam hadn’t fallen over him while he had been trying to save his mother. If only … if only ….
But nothing would bring them back. Slowly, Emerson let his gaze lower from the grey sky above him to the two bodies that lay a short distance away. The fire had not torn at their flesh, but the smoke had seized their lungs until they breathed no more. It was almost as bad.
Every bit of his body wished to move towards them. His mother’s nightdress was black and burnt, her legs bare for all the world to see. The midnight black hair Emerson had inherited was fanned out behind her, an inky stain against the white snow. Alive, Lucy Lake, the Dowager Duchess of Edendale, always wore a slight frown of either worry or consternation. In death, she looked at peace.
Next to her laid his brother, His Grace Jeremy Lake, the recent Duke of Edendale. He was young, though his youth was marred by the wrinkles on his brow. Within the two years he had been duke, stress had bore down on him like a charging bull he could not escape. Emerson had not envied his brother and his responsibilities, but now he wished he had been in his place when the fire struck up.
At least perhaps then, Emerson would not be suffering now, knowing that he was the only one left.
“My lord,” his butler broached again. This time, Emerson heard the crunch of snow, indicating that he was coming closer. “We should go to the nearest inn and—my lord!”
Suddenly, Sparkes was next to him, his beaten, worried face crumpled with distress. Emerson paid him no mind. He continued to stare at all he had lost, letting the pain consume him.
“Fetch Mr. Renner and bring him to the inn!” he ordered Francis frantically, and the telltale sound of pounding feet signified his order being carried out. Turning back to Emerson, he said, “My lord, please, we must get out of the cold and somewhere warm. You are injured. It would be best to find a bed and have Mr. Renner check your wounds.”
Emerson blinked slowly. His head beginning to ache, he slowly turned to look at the dear butler. Sparkes had been with his family for as long as he could remember, and seeing him now should have provided some solace. All it did was make the hole in his heart grow larger.
The blankness in Emerson’s eyes clearly frightened the older man even more. He hurried to his feet and gently coaxed Emerson to his. “Come,” Sparkes said firmly.
“No.” Emerson pushed him away weakly. The moment he did, he sank back to his knees, his strength leaving him. Now, he could feel it. The pain running throughout his body was not only emotional but physical. His hands, his arms, his legs, and, oh God, his face. His face felt as if it was on fire. Emerson didn’t dare to wonder what was wrong with him. He only welcomed the torture. It was what he deserved after failing so miserably, after all.
Sparkes sighed heavily, hanging his head in dejection. A part of Emerson felt bad for worrying the butler so, but nothing could be done about it. Right now, it felt as if his life was ending.
This is the second time.
Shame rushed through him as he recalled that day two years ago. The day Jeremy found out that he was to be the new Duke of Edendale. They had stood together in the study as his brother read aloud the letter he’d received from their mother from Rome.
Their father was dead, driven to an early grave by a fever. He’d enjoyed his last moments in Rome, his mother had consoled them in her letter, but all Emerson could think at the time was that he’d failed them. He should have been there. His mother had begged him, after all, to come with them. If he had listened to her pleas, none of that would have happened. His father would still be alive, though still pestered by his heart problems, and the family estate would still be standing before him.
Once again, because of his selfishness, his family suffered.
Finally, the tears came, spilling over his dirty cheeks. Emerson didn’t wipe at them, but he heaved, letting the sobs seize him completely. He sank his face into the snow as the tears soaked into them, the coolness pressed against his burning cheeks.
He cried until there were no more tears left. He cried until his body could no longer handle it, and he slipped into a deep sleep. And he was certain that when he woke again, there would be more tears to shed.
But once the crying was over, only one truth remained. With all that was lost, he’d gained one thing. A title. A dukedom.
What a cruel joke.
The Dower House, Angelfield Estate, 1817
“Heavens, I think I have had enough now.”
Kate quickly stopped reading, lifting her gaze to the elderly woman sitting across from her. She watched, slightly amused, as the woman lifted a cup of steaming tea to her lips and grimaced. Silence filled the dining space as the elderly woman became the center of attention, sipping the too-hot tea and realizing that she was scalding her tongue.
“Is it that good?” said the man to her left, his crinkled eyes filled with mirth. He, too, had a cup of tea sitting before him, but he had enough self-control to blow gently on it before sipping.
The elderly woman shot him a baleful glance, which made the man grin. “It is lovely,” she said. “You know how Kate makes wonderful cups of tea.”
“But perhaps you should slow down, Mrs. Bellmore,” Kate said gently, hiding her own smile. “Drinking tea that is too hot cannot be good for you. I’m sure you will savour it all the more once it has cooled.”
“Hmph.” Mrs. Bellmore grumbled something under her breath, but she heeded Kate’s advice, setting the cup back on its saucer.
Kate smiled. “Have you had enough of today’s Times?” she asked.
Mrs. Hester Bellmore nodded her round head. The grey curls at her temples hardly moved, the rest of her silky hair tucked into a chignon at the nape of her neck. Kate had done it herself earlier this morning and was still pleased with her work. Mrs. Bellmore had certainly been a beauty in her younger years, and much of that held up today, her green eyes vibrant and her skin nearly wrinkle-free.
“Yes,” she answered Kate. “I’m afraid the news of late is far too much for an old woman like myself. I think I would much prefer hearing you read something else to me.”
“Would you like for me to fetch a book of poems then?”
“No, no, it is quite fine. It will soon be time for our nap, won’t it, Thomas?”
Mr. Bellmore nodded in agreement with his wife. Kate assumed that he, too, had been rather handsome in his youth, but age had bore down on him far harder than it had his wife. Lines aged his face past his five-and-sixty years, and he walked with a cane. Still, he was as full of life as his wife. “Yes, my dear. Though I cannot think of a single thing I would hate more than to listen to poems.”
“That is because you are classless,” Mrs. Bellmore stated.
“And you are far too romantic,” her husband shot back.
“Is that so bad?”
“No.” Despite the slight squabble, Mr. Bellmore grinned. “It is how I managed to make you fall in love with me after all.”
Kate watched, still smiling, as Mrs. Bellmore blushed furiously. She had only been with the elderly couple for a few months and was still quite taken with their love for each other. Mrs. Bellmore wasn’t as open with her affection as her husband was, but there was still no denying that their love had stood the test of time. Mr. Bellmore grinned at his wife, sensing that she was going to either snap at him for saying such a thing in front of company or ignore him altogether.
She chose the latter, fixing her green eyes on Kate. “Kate, my dear, I am sorry.”
“There is no need to apologise, Mrs. Bellmore,” Kate said quickly. “I admire the affection you two have for each other greatly.”
“And when will you be seeking such affection for yourself?”
The question caught her off guard. “Pardon?”
Mrs. Bellmore, despite her earlier decision, sipped her tea again. Since she did not wince, Kate assumed it had cooled enough. “You are only twenty years old, my dear. You are still young enough to be married. And an earl’s daughter, no less!”
“Mrs. Bellmore!” Kate quickly looked around, even though they were alone in the dining room. The other servants were busy, she knew, but she couldn’t help but worry that someone might overhear.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Mr. Bellmore chimed in. “You know your secret is safe with us. We shan’t tell a soul. But what my wife says is true. I do think it is time that you think about finding yourself a husband. You are a lovely girl, after all, with many great qualities. It shan’t be too difficult.”
“I do not wish to be married,” Kate said softly.
Mrs. Bellmore looked slightly concerned at that. “Don’t you wish to bear children?”
Kate shook her head. She took a few moments to think about what to say next, folding the London Times still in her hands. One of the footmen would go into London early just to collect the daily newspaper, as well as any other mail the Bellmores may have. She lay it on the table and met their eyes. “I am quite happy being unmarried. And so what if I am an earl’s daughter? That has done nothing for me, and I do not think it will help me find a husband, even if I wished to. I do not want anyone to know the truth of my lineage either, in any case.”
Mrs. Bellmore sighed. “Well, there seems there is simply no convincing her, Thomas.”
“No, there is no convincing her at all,” Mr. Bellmore agreed, mimicking the sigh.
Kate smiled. “I appreciate your concern, however. But please, do not worry yourself over such matters any longer.”
“I suppose I shan’t.” Mrs. Bellmore left her half-drunken tea and rose. “And I am afraid your wonderful tea has sapped all my remaining strength. Thomas, are you ready for our nap?”
“Just a moment.” Mr. Bellmore picked up his tea and drank it with gusto. Kate giggled at the look on Mrs. Bellmore’s face.
“Goodness, what am I to do with you?” the older woman murmured under her breath.
Mr. Bellmore set his cup down and shot her a wink. “You shall continue spending the rest of your life with me, I suppose.”
She rolled her eyes in response, but there was no hiding the smile playing around her lips. “I suppose,” she mumbled.
Kate watched with amusement and admiration as Mr. Bellmore grasped his cane and got to his feet. Before he turned to leave, he looked at Kate and asked, “And what shall you do while we are sleeping?”
“I think I might go for a walk,” Kate answered. “It is a lovely day outside, after all.”
“Well, don’t wander too far,” Mrs. Bellmore told her before grasping her husband’s elbow and leading him out of the room. Kate watched them go, her heart panging with an unidentifiable emotion.
She shoved the feeling aside and rose as well to clear the plates. She brought them to the kitchen, where the cook and the scullery maid gave her their thanks, before she made her way to her bedchamber. The Dower House was quite large, as Mr. Bellmore had worked tirelessly in the army when he was younger. He’d been successful enough to afford this luxurious home for them to rent for the summer, as well as afford the servants they’d taken with them. Kate felt a well of gratitude within her as she meandered down the hallway to her chambers. It reminded her of her old home, the home of an earl who had let every pound he made slip through his fingers.
But it had been so long ago that Kate could not even remember her bedchamber. She stepped into the one she had now and sighed with contentment. It was the grandest bedchamber she’d ever slept in, and every time she laid eyes on it, it brought back to memory her previous hard times working with Mrs. King.
Mean, old Mrs. King who had done nothing but complain and curse at her all day long. She’d been Mrs. King’s lady companion in London but had received such horrible treatment that Kate couldn’t help but feel a twinge of relief when she’d passed away. That relief was always quickly followed by guilt, however.
But with the Bellmores, Kate truly felt like a part of the family. The fact that they knew that she was the daughter of an earl showed how much faith she put in them. Mrs. King would never have been able to get that bit of information out of her.
Kate wandered past her bed to the open window on the other side of the room, a gentle breeze brushing past the curtains. The view was immaculate, overlooking the lovely garden that the Bellmores had allowed to become overgrown. They had brought their gardener with them, who was working there now, snipping flowers to fill the house with. Kate watched her for a while, barely moving when someone came in.
“Oh, heavens, why do I even bother?” Mary, the housemaid, sighed heavily. “I shall stop coming to your room, Kate. It makes no sense. You leave everything so clean and tidy that there isn’t any work for me to do!”
Kate smiled over her shoulder at her. Mary actually looked bothered, hands on her hips, her brown hair slipping out from under her cap. She was one of the few servants the Bellmores had brought with them to Dower House, the rest having already been employed by the house. “I like to do things myself,” Kate explained. “It’s an old habit, I’m afraid.”
“Well, stop it right now. I don’t want Mr. and Mrs. Bellmore tossing me aside when they learn I barely do any work around here.”
“They won’t do that. They adore you.”
“Not as much as they adore you, I’m sure.” Mary sighed again and drifted closer inside, her cleaning cloth pinched between two fingers.
“Oh, come now, Mary, you know how much the Bellmores love you.” Kate waved her hand dismissively as if to clear the conversation from the air. “But enough of that. It has been a while since we’ve talked, hasn’t it? We’ve both been so busy as of late. Tell me, how fares your family?”
“Well, since my father is the blacksmith in my village, he has had no time to rest—especially since it is summertime. Couples like Mr. and Mrs. Bellmore hail from London to relax in my village, and they hoist their jewelry onto him to fix. He makes no complaints, though. Summertime is the best time for making money.”
“And your mother?”
“She is enjoying every bit of her days making pies and gossiping with anyone with a loose enough tongue.” Mary rolled her eyes. “I swear, that may be the only reason she makes pies in the first place. Handing them out makes it much easier for her to lure others into conversation.”
“She sounds like someone I know,” Kate commented with a cheeky grin.
Mary slapped her lightly with her cloth. “I am not as bad as my mother, I assure you. If I was, I would have told you straight away that Phillip, the footman, has growing feelings for Hannah, our scullery maid, and wants to reveal them to her soon. He even said that he …” Mary trailed off, folding her lips into her mouth when she caught Kate’s raised eyebrow. “Very well. Perhaps the apple does not fall far from the tree then.”
That made Kate laugh. She moved away from the window, slipping into the chair before her vanity table. With Mrs. King, she hadn’t even gotten a mirror. “And your sister?” she asked as she began to undo the chignon she had twisted her hair into earlier.
“She is set on marrying the—Oh, Kate, please let me do your hair.”
Surprised, Kate looked at her. Mary advanced quickly, running her fingers through Kate’s dark brown hair without warning. The loose tresses spilled over Mary’s hand, brushing Kate’s shoulders. “I’ve always thought that you had lovely hair and wished that I could style it. Oh, please let me.”
“Of course, you may,” Kate told her with a smile. Mary grinned victoriously and continued running her fingers through her hair, rubbing Kate’s scalp now and again.
“As I was saying, my dear sister, Gillie, wants nothing more than to marry the vicar’s son, though I cannot tell if it is because she truly loves him or because she believes he will secure her future.”
“Is she getting very far in her advances?” Kate asked.
“Not as far as she’d like. They have formed a simple friendship, but the vicar’s son is not pressed to marry. He is young, I believe. No more than four-and-twenty. I believe that he’ll remain a bachelor until he is forced to take a wife.”
“I wish your sister all the best in her endeavours, then.”
“As do I, though I wish she would stop throwing herself at him. It is nice to be pursued. But enough about me. It hasn’t been long since you’ve begun working for Mr. and Mrs. Bellmore, has it? How do you like it?”
It had only been two months. They had interviewed her in spring at their home in London and had instantly taken to her. And her to them. She had revealed her noble lineage to them during that interview without a second thought and was happy to know that she’d left her secret in safe hands.
“This is the first glimpse of peace of mind I’ve had since my mother died,” Kate responded. It felt nice having Mary’s hands in her hair. It felt even nice being this relaxed, with a friend to confide in and employers she adored.
“She died when you were a child, didn’t she?”
“Yes.” In the mirror, Kate caught Mary’s somber expression and laughed. “You needn’t be sad. My life may not have been very comfortable, but I’m here now, and that’s what matters. I feel wanted and appreciated. But I know it won’t last forever. The Bellmores are elders, after all, and I am nothing but an old maid.”
“A beautiful young woman,” Mary corrected firmly. “Even when you are thirty, you will have your beauty and shall have many men willing to marry you.”
“I doubt that,” Kate said with a laugh. But being an old maid didn’t bother her. She’d never entertained the idea of marriage, even though she knew she was not hard to look at. With dark brown—nearly black—hair that fell well past her shoulders, a heart-shaped face, and eyes a cornflower blue, Kate knew she could find a husband if she truly wished it. She’d been called a beauty since she was a young child, though she didn’t always pay her appearance much mind.
But becoming a wife was not something meant for her. In fact, Kate didn’t think there was very much substance to her life altogether, but she didn’t reveal those morbid thoughts to Mary.
“And there we go.” Mary stepped back, hands on her hips, a satisfied smile on her face.
“My …” Kate trailed off in awe. In such a short amount of time, Mary had done wonders. Kate’s hair had been pinned up, the natural wave of her tresses brought to life. Mary had left a few tendrils out to frame her face, and for the first time in a long time, Kate felt like a true beauty.
“You see, with a face like yours and the wit and charm you possess, you shan’t become an old maid. It is simply impossible. You just haven’t met the right man yet. But that will change soon!”
“What do you mean?” Kate asked, turning to look at her.
Mary’s brown eyes were glittering with excitement. “The London Season will be drawing to a close, and soon, there will be many visitors to the countryside. There, we will find our chance!”
“We?” Kate echoed with an arched brow, amusement playing around her lips.
Mary flushed. “Well, I want to be married too, you know. Who knows who we will meet?”
“That’s true. And you are quite capable of attracting any man you please.”
“Do you truly think so?” Mary leaned down to primp herself in the mirror, making Kate laugh.
“I do. No one will be able to resist your charm.”
Mary smiled broadly. “Thank you for those kind words, Kate. And thank you for letting me do your hair. I should be going now, though. As much as I like to jest about Mr. and Mrs. Bellmore letting me go, I do not actually want it to happen. What shall you do?”
“Go for a walk.”
“Oh, well, in that case, you should take the trail behind the house. It leads into a small forest, and there is a lovely pond hidden within. I’m sure you will love it.”
“I shall, thank you.”
Mary smiled and left the room. Kate waved at her friend as she slipped out of the room, leaving her alone once more. She turned back to the mirror to admire her reflection, her cheeks pink with excitement. She did not like to dream, to think about the kind of future many other women wanted for themselves. Kate only wanted to be happy and was content to seek that happiness without a man by her side.
But Mary’s words lingered with her. And seeing herself now, Kate only wanted to shed the drab blue dress she wore and put on something prettier.
She hurried to her wardrobe to find something but all that was available were old dresses, seasons out of fashion. It was much better than what she was currently wearing, though, so she pulled out a sunflower yellow walking dress she’d had since she was five-and-ten, knowing it would still fit. Thankfully, she had a matching summer bonnet to wear as well. She slipped into the dress and carefully placed the bonnet around Mary’s hard work.
The dress, while out of fashion, clung to her slim frame perfectly. Kate remembered how excited she’d been when she’d first received it, just a few months before she was meant to come out to society. But then her father had died, their dire financial state had been revealed, and Kate had learned the painful truth that she would not be able to debut.
The bitterness of that time had long since disappeared, and Kate was happy to know that she still admired the dress as much as she had when she’d first seen it. Slipping on her walking shoes, she left her room.
She heeded Mary’s suggestion, taking the old trail behind the Dower gardens and headed towards the line of trees in the distance. The grass grew taller as she got closer, but the trail was still clear enough for her to see. Soon enough, with the wind at her back, Kate made it to the small cops of trees, a tiny pond nearby. She watched a bullfrog hop away from her and wondered if this was the pond Mary was talking about.
No, she said it was hidden within the forest.
But Kate was at a loss. Right at the entrance of the forest, there were three distinct paths heading in different directions. Which should she take?
Worrying her lip between her teeth, she decided there was no use turning back to ask Mary for clearer directions. She delved down the path in the center and prayed she would not find herself lost.
At the rate he was going, he was bound to wear a hole into the wooden floor soon. The thought didn’t stop him. It spurred Emerson on, and he perched his chin in his hand, rubbing the smooth skin as he mulled over the letter he’d just read.
Sitting a short distance away from him, his two faithful dogs watched him go back and forth in the study. They panted heavily, a clear indication that they longed to go out and stretch their legs. But the large dogs remained quiet, watching their master.
Emerson paused for a moment to look at them. “What should I do?” he asked the older of the two dogs, who seemed to stare back at him with wise eyes. Her name was Lily, while her younger, more energetic brother’s name was Liam.
He received no response, and Emerson suddenly felt foolish for expecting one. He began pacing once more, staring now at the letter on his desk.
The broken seal had once shown the Wellbourne crest. Emerson had felt excitement when he’d seen it, knowing who the letter was from. Its contents, though, now filled him with dread.
With a groan of annoyance, he marched over to the side table sitting a short distance away and poured himself a glass of brandy. He downed the glass in one fell swoop and grimaced at the harsh burn consuming his midsection. Before he could reach for another, there was a knock on the door.
“Come,” he ordered brusquely.
Sparkes entered bearing a plate. Only a single sandwich laid on top, which he brought over to the desk. “Your lunch, Your Grace.”
“I don’t want it.”
“You did not have breakfast, Your Grace. And it is only a small sandwich. You must eat.”
“I said I do not want it!” Emerson hissed. Turning his back to the older man, he poured himself another glass. This time, he took a sip rather than throwing it down his throat.
Sparkes was quiet for a while. Emerson had expected him to insist. Sparkes did not like to see his master drinking, after all, especially when he had no food in his stomach. But instead, the other man asked, “Is there something bothering you, Your Grace?”
Emerson turned to face him, a grim look on his face. He pointed to the letter on the table, a silent gesture for him to read.
Sparkes rested the plate with the sandwich on the desk, picked up the letter, and read quickly. Then he lifted those wise eyes to Emerson. “Your friend will be visiting you.”
“Yes,” Emerson grumbled.
“I do not understand why this is a problem.”
Emerson fought back his annoyance. “You know Bob as well as I do,” he said. “It will not be a simple visit.”
In fact, it may be the very thing that drove Emerson over the edge. Bob Cherry had been Emerson’s closest friend since their school days at Westminster. And right now, Bob was Emerson’s only friend. They hadn’t seen each other in eight years as Bob had gone to France to work for his father. But now, the Earl of Wellbourne was dead, and Bob Cherry would be returning to England to assume the new title.
Emerson should have been happy to see his friend again. They exchanged letters often, and with Bob, Emerson could truly be himself. But Bob had been gone for so long. He did not know about the fire two years ago. He did not know that Emerson was now the Duke of Edendale. And he certainly did not know that, in the past two years, Emerson had become a recluse who did not dare show his face in society. Nor did he want to.
What would he say when he saw Emerson’s horrible disfigurement? The scars he bore could not all be covered by his clothing. The worst of them all was on the left side of his face, twisting his flesh horribly. Emerson could not bear to look at himself. So how could his friend, who had remembered him as the sociable bachelor who had once enjoyed life and the company of others?
If Bob were to see him like this, there was no doubt in Emerson’s mind that he would try to bring him back into society. The thought alone scared Emerson to death.
He grimly sipped his brandy as Sparkes watched him patiently. He knew the butler had something to say and was waiting, already annoyed, for him to just come out and tell him.
“I think it would be a good thing, Your Grace,” Sparkes said after a brief silence. “It has been a while since you have been out among society. Perhaps with his visit, you two could go back to London and see a few old friends—”
“Nonsense! That may be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
Sparkes was not outwardly perturbed by the rude comment. He only clasped his hands behind his back and raised his chin. “It is what I believe is best for you, Your Grace. Mr. Cherry—pardon me, Lord Wellbourne—has always been a good influence on you.”
Emerson’s annoyance rose tenfold. He downed the rest of his brandy with a grimace and stalked over to his butler. “You are of no help,” he grumbled menacingly before he reached out and picked up the sandwich. Before Sparkes could assume that he would at least take a bite, Emerson shoved the sandwich into the pocket of the old pair of trousers he wore. Sparkes’ eyes lit with muted disappointment, but the expression didn’t last very long. The butler did let out a small sigh, though.
The defiant act did nothing to make Emerson feel better. If anything, he was even more annoyed—though it was directed at himself. Not caring to explore that feeling, he snapped his fingers at Lily and Liam, and the two massive dogs bounded to their feet instantly.
“I’m going for a walk,” he announced, turning his back to his butler. “Don’t wait around for me.”
“Please eat, Your Grace,” Sparkes tried once more.
Emerson ignored him. It was clear—with that crumbling sandwich stuffed in his pocket—that he would not be eating lunch today. With the way he was feeling, he doubted that he would have any dinner either. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Before he left the room, he fetched his walking stick, which was propped against a bookshelf, and followed the dogs out the door. Excited as they were at the prospect of a walk, they hurried down the hallway, the sound of their steps being swallowed by the thick carpet. Emerson followed morosely. Right now, his dogs were the only company he could stomach. As they passed through the foyer, he spotted the housekeeper dusting in the corner, and she made a quick, respectful curtsy to him before she hurried away. Emerson didn’t spare her any mind.
Outside, the sun hung high, its brilliant rays warming the earth below. It was an objectively lovely day, and Emerson hated it. A part of him wished the sky had been as dull and grey as his mood and that the sweet peas lining the path to the forest hung their heads instead of opening their petals for the world to see. He wished thunder would boom in the distance and that the promise of rain would chase away every woodland critter he saw as he trudged closer to the forest, his dogs leading the way.
Emerson was tired of the constant sunny days of Edendale and couldn’t wait for winter. At that time, he could truly lock himself away, reminiscing on the winter two years ago and hating himself all over again.
But for now, the dogs wanted to go for a walk, and he needed to clear his head. What should he do about Bob?
Already a good distance from the house, he slowed, pulling the sandwich from his trousers. Emerson’s stomach grumbled at the sight, but his appetite was well and truly gone. So, he broke off a piece and tossed it to Lily, who caught it elegantly between her jaws. Liam pranced around Emerson’s body, waiting for his.
Absently, Emerson tossed the younger dog his piece as he thought about what he should do. Without a doubt, Bob was already on his way to England. There would be no use sending him a letter telling him not to come to Edendale. When he arrived at the door, though, could Emerson send him away? Claim that he had been afflicted by a terrible and contagious illness? Tell him that he was simply in no mood for company? No matter what he thought about, Emerson knew that the hardheaded Bob would barge in anyhow.
His mood grew fouler at the thought. When the sandwich was finished, the dogs rushed ahead, going in different directions. Liam chased a massive purple butterfly while Lily sniffed around. Emerson stabbed the ground with his walking stick, wanting to take his anger out on something.
At that moment, the sound of laughter reached his ears—children’s laughter. Emerson paused, looking around. They’d made it a good distance from the house, already close to the entrance of the forest. Closer to the road, however, he spotted two blond heads bobbing above the tall grass, chasing each other around. He recognized the son and daughter of the smithy, who had a tendency to trespass on his property.
“You two!” Emerson bellowed, frightening even his dogs. “Get away right now!”
The children drew to a quick halt, but Emerson was already advancing. The moment they laid eyes on him, they burst into tears. Emerson stopped in his tracks.
“Monster!” the little boy cried.
“Don’t hurt us!” the girl shouted.
They ran away from him, leaving him staring after them.
Good riddance, Emerson thought. He turned back in the direction of the forest, his dogs now somberly following.
They think I am a monster. A beast. It’s just as well. No one will dare trespass again when word gets around.
Emerson tried to console himself with that thought, but his anger and frustration began to give way to something else nearly as debilitating. He didn’t want that feeling to linger.
But there was no denying that, with the scars he bore, he was no better than a beast indeed. And when Bob came, he would see that for himself.