Alston Castle was operating like silk over the back of Frederica’s hand. The house was under control, and she was proud of it. It had been too long since she had been mistress of any house, and though Alston was not her home to run, it was her pleasure to help Beatrice during this time.
Frederica was determined that her sister-in-law would have nothing to worry about while she cared for her two new infants. Beatrice could focus all of her energy where it was needed most: on her two beautiful children, the niece, and nephew that Frederica was so proud of.
“The drapes in the great hall need cleaning,” she instructed one of the housemaids as she passed her in the corridor. “Could you see that they are done today?”
“Yes, miss,” the woman replied with a nod of acknowledgment before she backed away and carried on.
She was relatively new to Alston, a hire made several months ago. It was her first time working in a house such as this and she was adjusting rather well, Frederica thought.
She watched the young woman go, and a feeling of pride and accomplishment filled her chest as she observed what her work had done. Frederica was sure her sister-in-law would share her sentiment, but she neither wanted nor needed the praise. Frederica loved being of use again and she was enjoying every moment of it.
“Frederica?” her brother’s voice called over the sound of her own thoughts. She turned, the hem of her new dress tickling her ankles, and she found Alexander standing there. He was as tall and as handsome as he ever was, considering that he had two infants under his roof. His appearance showed no signs of what might be expected – namely fatigue.
“How do you manage to remain so composed with two children ever in your arms?” she asked with a smile as she stepped forward and embraced him lightly. Unlike many men, Alexander took a very active part in his children’s daily lives. He was with them every day and was interested in everything about them. He was an excellent father in her opinion.
“Why should I not be? I do not wear the children like clothes,” her brother teased as he hugged her back. “I am only their father.”
“And what a fine father you are, Alexander. Father and Mother would be proud,” she said with a smile. “I know I am.”
“Are you?” Alexander questioned as he looked at her tenderly. “Sometimes I wonder if I am doing it all as it should be. I try to remember what Father was like.”
Frederica smiled and smoothed the collar of her brother’s shirt. “You do not need to be our father. You need to be their father, and all that requires is for you to be yourself. I am sure they will love you as much as we all do.”
“Sometimes it all seems to have happened so quickly. One moment I was living life on my own, and then there was Beatrice and now Clayton and Blythe. I wanted to be the best husband, and now I must be a husband and a father.”
“And you do well at both,” Frederica assured. “I always knew you would be good in those roles. You had the love required for them your entire life.”
Alexander chuckled. “Did you really think so?”
“Since we were children, I knew. I am glad to finally see it come to pass,” Frederica assured.
Her brother looked at her with such love. It was something she had missed all those years they were apart.
“I am happy to see you adjusted so well to being back in England. So many things have happened since we brought you home. I wondered how you would adjust to it all, but you seem to have overcome the past entirely. Just look at what you have done stepping into Beatrice’s shoes for the time. It’s wonderful.”
“Thank you,” Frederica said with a small smile. “I am just doing what I believe Beatrice would want.”
“And I know she approves. She was down here yesterday,” her brother informed to Frederica’s surprise. Beatrice had hardly left her room since having the twins. They kept her occupied without pause, and sleep was something she was much deprived of.
“Was she?” she questioned. “I did not see her. Was it after I was to bed?”
“No, earlier than that. She came down only for a moment while the children slept. However, in the end, she was too tired to be of much use and she soon returned to our room,” Alexander explained.
“Is she sure about the nurse? Help with the children would ease her fatigue,” Frederica suggested.
“No, Beatrice insists on taking the responsibility entirely upon herself. She does not feel that a nurse would do what she would for Clayton and Blythe, and she is very particular about who she will allow into their lives.”
Frederica nodded. She could understand what Beatrice felt, and if she were in her place, she would do the same. Frederica had always wanted to be the type of mother who played a part in every aspect of her children’s lives. Her mother had done so, and she wished to follow suit.
Her mother was raised primarily by a nurse as an infant, and then by a governess as a child, her parents never having the time or inclination to take her care personally. It was that experience that had forged her own thinking of the concept of nurses and governesses and had ultimately transformed it. She wanted to do better for her children and that she had. Alexander and Frederica were evidence of it.
Frederica laughed lightly as she looked at her brother. “Who would have thought that we would be here,” she mused. “I believe Mother and Father would be very happy to see where we are now. If they could see what their diligence in our upbringing has wrought.”
“I agree,” Alexander replied. “Especially with you.”
He took her arm and folded it over his as he began to walk with her. Frederica could remember him doing the same thing when they were young, when he took her on long walks around Alston’s gardens the way their mother would have done.
“You have been through so much, Frederica, and yet no one would know it to see you. Your recovery in France and your adjustment to being home again has truly been remarkable. I cannot tell you how much joy it gives Beatrice and me to see how well you handle things here.”
Frederica nodded her head silently, unwilling to share the truth which she had been hiding for many months. It was better for her brother to believe his own desires than to know the truth, especially when life had been so complicated after their return to England.
“You are an inspiration,” Alexander continued. “A person that others should mold themselves after. Your resilience is amazing and the fact that you bear no ill will is truly astounding. I wish I could say the same for myself.”
Frederica squeezed her brother’s arm gently. “Alexander.”
“I cannot lie to you. If I saw Chaput this moment, I do not know what I might do to him,” her brother said as he exhaled a long, deep breath.
“Nothing,” Frederica answered. “You would do nothing. The man deserves none of your time or your energy. What is past is past, and Francois Chaput is nothing more than that.”
“It hardly seems fair that he should be allowed to roam free after all he put you through,” Alexander continued. “He tormented you for so long and then left you in the state I found you…”
“Stop,” Frederica pleaded softly the moment her brother’s words faltered. “Just forget him. Forget that time. I already have.”
The lie was bitter on her tongue, but necessary in her mind. Her brother’s love made it painful for him to remember what she had endured. She did not wish them both to suffer from what Chaput had done to her. It was better for them both that she bore that burden alone.
Alexander squeezed her hand again. “As I said. You are more resilient than I am.”
“I am not, I assure you. I simply do what I must each and every day, the same as you. I am nothing special.” Frederica sighed at her own words. Nothing special… It was something she felt often but spoke of seldom.
“I think you are wonderful, and I dare say that I know others who would agree. You are an asset in our lives and in this house, Frederica. Never forget that,” her brother urged.
“I won’t,” she replied. “Now, I believe it’s time that you got to your office. I believe Lord Dulaney is expected any moment and there were some papers you wished to review before your meeting.”
Alexander smirked. “As I said, an asset to this house,” he reiterated before he kissed her forehead. “And an asset to me.”
“You go do your work, brother, while I do mine,” Frederica replied as she smiled brightly. She released his arm and watched as he turned and headed toward his office down the hall.
The day progressed as it normally did now that Beatrice was confined. Frederica saw to all of the meals, deciding on the menu for the day as well as the time they were to be served. She also saw to the chores which needed to be performed. In a house such as Alston there were always things that needed to be done. Then, of course, there was the bakery to consider.
Beatrice was busy with her children, but that did not mean she had no time to consider the other aspects of her life. The bakery she secretly owned and managed was important to her and, because of it, she had spent many days determining what items were to be made. It was something Frederica could not assist with as she had no idea of anything that concerned baking.
She marched down to the kitchen to see what progress was being made with the pies. They were to be delivered in the morning and Beatrice insisted the filling be done the night before to ensure timely delivery.
“Doris,” Frederica called upon entering. The woman was standing over a large pot and stirring lightly. Bonnie was kneading the dough and Florence was pulling something from the oven.
“Yes, my lady?” Doris replied in her low tone.
“How is everything looking?” Frederica questioned as she glanced over what lay before her. The kitchen smelled divine, full of warmth, with a light hint of sweetness in the air.
“We are all on track, my lady. Bonnie’s just pulling the shells out for some of the custards and I’m making the filling for the other pies,” she informed.
Doris had become Beatrice’s lead baker after things in the house had changed. Her brother’s desire to fill the house with more life meant Beatrice’s time in the kitchen had been reduced, and when her pregnancy had progressed, eliminated entirely.
“Excellent,” Frederica replied. “Do you need anything before I retire for the evening?”
Doris’ head shook heavily. “We will be fine here, my lady. We all know what to do. We will finish this lot now and do the rest in the morning, just as the Mistress would like.”
“Wonderful,” Frederica said with a smile. “Have a very good night.”
“Goodnight, my lady,” the three women chorused before Frederica left the room.
She liked them. They were hardworking and they never asked for anything, not that she wasn’t prepared to give if they did. They knew their responsibilities and carried them out to the letter, leaving her very little to be concerned about.
That night, as she walked slowly up the stairs to her room, Frederica found herself happily fatigued. She sat at her desk and began reviewing her list of chores for the week. It was the same thing every night. She checked off one day’s items and prepared for the next.
Her review done, Frederica changed into her nightgown with the assistance of her lady’s maid before climbing into bed. She was asleep minutes after her head hit the pillow.
He could hear them at it again. The sound of his friends’ animated conversation was normal, but it amused him nonetheless. No matter how many times he heard them, it would never get old.
Aaron Fitzherbert, Earl of Carmichael, and his sister, Lady Elaine, were two of the most loving and argumentative siblings Liam Somerset had ever met.
“I told you, Aaron, that will not work,” Elaine repeated for the third time.
“I told you it will,” his friend argued with a laugh.
They were in the small dining room of the house the pair had leased for the coming months. Liam was seated at his desk in his room just a few feet away. The door was ajar and he could hear every word that was exchanged. He often stayed in his room to see to matters of his work before joining Elaine and Aaron for dinner.
“How many times must I tell you, Elaine, I understand these things better than you do,” Aaron continued to protest.
“Not this time,” Elaine responded. What they were arguing about, Liam couldn’t tell. It may have been something as simple as the placement of a picture or the best wine to accompany their meal. The two loved to disagree and made a point to do so as often as they could, but it was just their way.
“Where did you go today?” Aaron asked. Liam continued to write his letter, still keenly aware of his friends’ conversation.
“Into town,” Elaine replied casually. “There was a sale at Marigold’s and Louise and I decided to see what they had to offer.”
There was a momentary silence.
“Without me or Liam?” Aaron questioned with a slight note of concern.
“Yes. Why would I need you?” Elaine questioned nonchalantly. “What do you and Liam know of fabrics? Louise was with me, and there could be no better selector of muslins than her, saving Frederica of course.”
Liam’s hand paused in its action. He knew Elaine’s response would not satisfy her brother. Aaron Fitzherbert was not a man who trifled with the safety of others, especially his only sister’s.
“Two women alone are hardly protection,” Aaron answered sternly. “You should know better. You are the late Earl of Carmichael’s daughter, a woman of note, people could try to take advantage of that.”
Elaine scoffed. “As you said, I am an Earl’s daughter, and the sister of one. Who would dare try to touch me? The title puts me at risk, as you see it, as much as it protects me.”
Elaine’s words were only going to propel their conflict. She never saw threats, while Aaron saw far too many. If only they could meet in the middle, then the world would be a peaceful place, but seeing as both considered themselves right in all things, the likelihood of that happening was non-existent.
Aaron was a protective brother, as were most men. He was not about to let his sister put herself in harm’s way, no matter how benign she believed her actions to be. Elaine, however, would not allow herself to be restricted either.
“Next time you will think twice about such a foolhardy expedition,” Aaron commented. “Take Liam with you or let me know and I will accompany you. You never see the dangers of your actions, and God forbid you should ever have to see one of my warnings come to pass.”
“You are not my father,” Elaine replied sharply.
“And you are not my child,” Aaron countered. “Now act like a sensible woman and I will not be forced to give such lectures.”
Now he’d done it.
Liam set his pen aside and moved toward the door. Aaron had just started a war with his words and, if any of them wanted to have a peaceful dinner, Liam was going to need to quell the storm he could already feel brewing from the other room.
“Sensible woman?” Elaine retorted venomously.
“That is what I said,” Aaron countered.
“I have more sense than any of the women you consider,” she replied. “If the women you entertained had half the sense of a bass, they would keep a wide berth from you. You will never marry any of them, yet you continue to flirt as if you would.”
“I do not pretend,” Aaron replied coolly. “They are very well aware that I will not and do not intend to ever marry. We simply enjoy each other’s company and the amusement of our conversation.”
“You are a cad,” Elaine retorted snidely.
“Perhaps,” Aaron replied. “But I make no pretense of being otherwise. I am who I am and I will not change. Why should I be denied friendly company simply because I do not wish to marry?”
“I beg to differ,” Liam interjected as he raised a hand over his head and leaned against the frame of the door. A smirk lit his face as he watched them.
Elaine turned in his direction. “A voice of reason. Probably the only source of male sense in this place.”
Aaron scowled at her. “Elaine.”
“Aaron,” she retorted snidely. She loved to press her brother’s buttons, but now was not the time for it.
“Now, both of you, be so kind as to stop the bickering. You’ll spoil your appetites for dinner, and I am told that the cook has prepared a spectacular feast of lamb for us today,” Liam said.
The pair continued to exchange angry looks. It happened once or twice a day. The good thing about siblings such as the Fitzherberts, was that they forgave quickly.
“Aaron started it,” Elaine replied.
“I did no such thing. It was Elaine’s foolishness that started this argument,” Aaron countered.
“Now both of you, stop it. It doesn’t matter who said what or who started this evening’s fracas, the point is that it is time to finish it.” He looked from Elaine to Aaron and back again. Elaine pouted but neither spoke.
“Elaine, you know your brother worries.”
“He need not. I can take care of myself. I am never careless,” she replied.
“No one said that you were,” Liam replied as he turned to Aaron and raised an eyebrow at him. His friend was about to speak, but the look stopped him.
“You are very capable,” Aaron replied sullenly.
Elaine continued to sulk. “You are not a cad,” she replied.
Aaron smiled. “Just a little bit,” he allowed.
“Now, isn’t that better?” Liam interjected as he began to chuckle. “Eased tensions to make dinner easy.”
“You have always been good at quelling our quarrels,” Elaine commented as she smiled at him.
“You two have far too many,” Liam replied as he stepped into the room fully. He looked at Aaron. “You know you’re wrong, don’t you?”
His friend’s brow furrowed. “Wrong?” About what?”
“About never changing,” Liam continued. “One of these days you will meet a lady whose very presence will alter all your thinking.”
A soft laugh filled the room as Aaron leaned back in his seat. “You really believe that?”
“I know it,” Liam answered. “There is someone out there for each of us. I believe that, and when you meet that right one, no other matters.”
“The next thing you will tell me is that you believe in fairies,” Aaron mused. Elaine did not share his sentiment.
“It’s better to believe in something than nothing,” she commented as she looked at Liam with a smile. “You were always wiser than my brother.”
Aaron chuckled. “Now that I cannot argue with.”
“Since I am wiser, why don’t we head down for dinner? I could use a taste of the cook’s lamb. He does nothing better,” Liam suggested.
Elaine laughed. “That is the best idea I’ve heard all evening.”
“I am inclined to agree,” Aaron answered as he got to his feet to join them. “I’ll lead the way.”
Aaron left the room first while Liam and Elaine followed. Liam smiled as he watched him. His friend truly did not believe in love or the possibility of it transforming a life. There was much Lord Carmichael had to learn and one day someone would teach him.
Dinner was delicious, as expected. The cook his friends had hired was impeccable. Liam almost wished he could take him home with him when he returned to Marcombe and Edphrey Manor, his family home.
The Somersets had long occupied the seat of Marcombe, but not nearly as long as some families held theirs. However, Liam believed five generations was a good start, and one he hoped to continue. He was the fifth Marquess of Marcombe.
Liam looked at Aaron over their empty plates that were waiting to be cleared from the table. He smirked. “If you are so adamant that love will not change you, then I propose a wager.”
“A wager?” Aaron questioned. “What kind of wager?”
“I wager twenty pounds that you will lose yourself to some lady, and that her love will transform you.”
Aaron laughed heartily. “Since when are you a betting man?”
“Just now,” Liam answered. “I have been considering your adamant opinion that nothing can sway you, and I have never been more confident in the inaccuracy of that belief. Therefore, I do not see this as betting, but as a sure return of investment.”
“An investment in my brother?” Elaine questioned. “Usually, I would say that you are setting yourself up for a loss, but since you and I are of the same mind, I think you might win this,” she commented.
“Now the two of you wish to wage against me?” Aaron looked at Elaine and chuckled. “Do you wish to take a portion of his bet?”
“It is unladylike to gamble. I leave that to you men. However, I will give my opinion that you are going to lose this one, brother. One day someone will win your heart and you will see what I have always said is true… Love changes everything.”
“Love changes nothing because love does not exist. This feeling you speak of is just a glamour. Something made up to amuse young women and keep their minds occupied during days of boredom. They chase it relentlessly, hoping to win some man in to participate in their hopes, and sometimes they succeed.”
Aaron’s cynical nature when it came to love was amazing to Liam. Aaron and Elaine had come from a good, loving family, where their parents doted on one another. Liam wondered why their son would think otherwise when he had witnessed their affection his entire life.
Aaron continued. “Good partnerships are established through marriage, or at least one hopes so. Love, however, I cannot attest to. Therefore, I take your wager,” he said as he laid his notes down upon the table.
Liam smirked as he placed his notes beside it. “Elaine shall be the keeper of this bet,” as he said as he slid the notes towards her. She took them in her hands and smiled as she looked from one to the other.
“I look forward to seeing the results of this,” she commented.
“How long shall we let this last?” Aaron asked. “I expect you will get weary of it sooner or later.”
Liam smirked. “We have your entire life,” he answered. “Love comes when it is time, and never before.”
Aaron scoffed. “I am sorry to tell you but the watch was broken when I was born, my friend. There will be no time for me to marry, I assure you. However, I will gladly take your money. I am sure I can still find a use for it when I’m eighty.”
Elaine shook her head. “You are incorrigible,” she stated as she turned from him. “Shall we play cards, Liam? It has been some time since I thrashed you,” she teased.
“Whatever you wish,” he answered. “I have no plans, and since your brother is here, I garner he has no plans either.”
“That is where you are wrong. I have every intention of going to bed. It has been a long day and I need to rest.”
“How boring,” Elaine replied. “One game?”
Her brother sighed. “Fine. One game.”
Francois’ voice bellowed loudly. Her stomach knotted tightly as fear caused her to tremble. He was drunk, again. He only ever knew her when he was drunk and needed money to settle some debt that he had incurred in his stupor.
“Quiet, Madeline,” she instructed her lady’s maid. The young girl cowered at her feet with her head upon her lap. Frederica held her hand tightly as they waited with bated breath. Francois was a terrible man, whose temper was made worse by drink, something of which he was very fond and indulged in frequently.
“Madame,” Madeline cried.
“Hush,” she urged with a finger to her lips. “Silence. All will be well.”
They dared not move from where they sat. Frederica hoped and prayed with all her might that Francois would succumb to the alcohol and fall where he stood. It had happened many times before, sparing her from the difficulties of his temper. She hoped that night would be the same.
“Where are you?” her husband continued to bellow and the shaking of her limbs only increased. What did he want now? What trouble had he brought himself and both of them? Francois seemed skilled at bringing calamity as she was soon beginning to learn. Who was this man that she had married?
They had only been married a month before the truth of her husband’s ways came to light. His love of wine and women was beyond anything she could have imagined. Where had the man that had wooed her gone? What had happened to his sweet words and kind gestures?
Those questions had plagued her for months since their arrival in Dordogne. Everything had been a lie, even the place he had promised to take her. Frederica had never heard of Dordogne before he brought her to the house and left her there. He returned several days later, drunk and penniless and demanding money of her. The routine had continued ever since that day.
The sound of his approach shook the insides of the house like an earthquake. Frederica could almost feel him drawing nearer. He was coming to find her. There would be no escaping him tonight.
“Go,” she told Madeline suddenly. “Quickly. Leave me,” she instructed to the girl’s fervent protest.
“No, madame. I cannot leave you. The Monsieur, he is very angry. I fear for you,” Madeline cried. She was eighteen and this was the first house she had worked for. Frederica feared it may be the last for the girl after this experience.
Frederica nodded. “I understand, but you must go. He will be angry with you and his restraint with me will not be shown to you. You must leave. Go to your room and hide.”
Madeline still refused.
“Go!” Frederica commanded. The girl rose to her knees and quickly got to her feet at Frederica’s demand. She hated to be rough with her but she had no choice. She had to protect her.
No sooner had Madeline left the room than Frederica heard Francois’ boots upon the stair. He was coming. She closed her eyes and waited for him to find her. It would not be long.
The door to the bedroom opened violently and her husband wobbled into the room, using the walls and all that came near his hand to bear him up.
“There you are,” he slurred. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?”
“What can I do for you, sir?” she asked as she got to her feet. Her stomach roiled as fear caused her insides to twist and turn. She felt as if she would lose her composure, but she did her best to hold herself up as she kept the distance between them.
Francois came closer and she stepped back. She would not allow him to get his hands on her again. The memories of the last experience would never be erased from her mind, despite the vanishing of the bruises.
“Come here!” he demanded.
“What is your wish?” she asked, still maintaining the distance.
“Why are you so far? I said come here,” he repeated his demand. Still, Frederica refused to step closer.
“I was just going to bed, sir. Tell me what you wish and I will see it done,” she said as her hands began to tremble worse.
“I need money. Give me some,” he demanded.
“How much do you need?” she asked as she walked the perimeter of the room, keeping a close eye on her husband’s location. She did not want him too close.
“What do you have?” he grunted as he stepped toward her and fumbled over his own feet, tumbling head first into the bed and then to the floor. He groaned as his full weight hit the floor beneath him, curses issuing from his lips almost immediately.
Frederica jumped at the sound as her heart began to race. She reached for her purse and pulled out what money she had there. She tossed it on the bed near where he’d fallen. “There,” she stated. “Take what you want.”
Francois pulled himself to his knees as he grasped at the loose bills on the bed, eagerly trying to stuff them into his pockets. It was the perfect time to escape the room and Frederica, driven by fear, attempted to do so.
He was quick despite his inebriated state. No sooner had she rounded the bed toward the door than his hands reached out and grabbed hold of her skirt, pulling her to the floor beside him. Frederica tried to scramble away, but the more she struggled the harder he held her.
Panic filled her heart as his voice growled in her ear obscenities that his mouth had spoken earlier, as he demanded she give him more. It wasn’t enough. It was never enough. She could have given him all she had and still, he would have demanded more from her.
Frederica clawed at the air in desperation. She wanted to be free of him, of his vice-like hold and his foul breath that reeked of alcohol and vomit. She wanted to get away.
“Let go,” she cried as she tried to pry herself free. “Let go,” she repeated more urgently as his hands continued to hold her fast. Over and over she cried out and fought against the hands that held her, but safety always seemed too far away.
“Help,” she cried but no one answered. She called again, and still, no one came. Then she reached up, her hand gripping the air and then suddenly she was free.
Frederica sat up in her bed. The room was dark around her and the air cool. She was breathing hard as her eyes attempted to adjust, and it took her a moment to realize where she was.
She was no longer in Dordogne. She was no longer under her husband’s thumb. She was safe at Alston.
The night was still and the morning was far from its arrival. Frederica climbed from beneath her sheets and walked toward the window to look out. A clear half-moon dotted the sky with its light as Frederica held herself. She was still trembling.
She could not return to her bed despite her efforts. Sleep would elude her yet another night. She sat in the chair in the corner of her room and watched the window until the sun came up. Finally, when it seemed a suitable hour, she called for her lady’s maid to help her dress. It was time to start the day.
Frederica was tired as she got to work. The household needed her, and she needed it to keep her mind occupied. The nightmares came once in a while, and when they did, sleep was not to be found and the memories were ever before her.
“Would you see that the bedrooms get fresh sheets today?” she asked one of the maids. “Also, could you have the guest rooms cleaned?”
“Yes, my lady. Are we expecting guests?” the maid questioned.
“Possibly,” Frederica replied. “However, that will be confirmed in due course. Just have the rooms prepared,” she instructed.
Elaine and Aaron were still in Everdale, and despite them having their own accommodation in town, Frederica hoped to have them spend a few days with her at Alston. It had been years since the brother and sister had spent any time in the house of their youths. It would be a welcome change to have them all under one roof once more.
“Lady Chaput,” Mr. Foggerty called as he approached her. “Lord Carmichael and Lady Elaine and a guest are here to see you.”
The smile spread across Frederica’s lips immediately. She had not expected to see them, yet just as she was preparing to invite them to visit, there they were. She walked quickly to meet them, while Mr. Foggerty attempted to keep up.
“Lord Carmichael,” Frederica said animatedly as she found her friends standing in the hall awaiting her arrival. Aaron was dressed in a fine burgundy suit that looked impeccable on him. Elaine was dressed in a lighter shade of the same color.
“Lady Chaput,” Aaron replied with a smile as he stepped forward and took her hand in his and bowed to it. Elaine was less formal in her greeting as she spread her arms wide to embrace her.
“Frederica,” she said sweetly as they held each other.
“It’s lovely to see you, Elaine. I was only speaking of you a moment ago when Mr. Foggerty came to inform me you were here,” Frederica laughed.
“How fortuitous it seems,” Elaine replied as they released each other. “Great minds were thinking alike,” she mused.
“So it would seem,” Frederica answered. She was so glad to see her friends that she was almost oblivious to their company. Almost, but not quite. She turned her gaze to the gentleman who stood just to her right.
“Lady Chaput, may I present my close friend, Liam Somerset, Marquess of Marcombe. Liam, allow me to introduce our oldest friend, Lady Frederica Chaput.”
Frederica turned her full attention to the man who had stepped toward her. The Marquess was tall and lean, with a crown of dark golden curls on top of his head and a triangular jawline that was free of beard. His nose was straight and his eyes were dark brown. He took her hand and bowed low over it as she curtseyed.
“Lady Chaput. It is a pleasure,” he said with a polite smile.
“Your Lordship, the feeling is mutual. Any friend of Lord Carmichael is a friend of mine,” she commented. “I have known them both all of my life, and if they like you enough to call you friend, it is assured that I will do the same.”
Lord Marcombe smiled. “I have no dispute with you there, my lady. Lord Carmichael and Lady Elaine have impeccable taste in the character of their friends, and I can see they have not faltered in having you as one of them.”
Frederica felt her cheeks warm at his compliment. “Thank you, Your Lordship. I appreciate the sentiment.”
“I just speak my mind, my lady,” he answered.
“Now that we are all acquainted,” Aaron interrupted. “May I enquire of your brother and sister-in-law, the Duke and Duchess of Everdale?”
“You may,” Frederica replied. “However, why don’t we relocate our conversation to someplace more comfortable. The parlor perhaps?”
“That sounds lovely,” Elaine replied.
“I will have some tea brought. Are you hungry?” Frederica enquired as she turned to lead them.
“No, we had a late morning meal before we came to visit you. Tea would be lovely however,” Aaron replied from beside her.
“He can never get enough of tea,” Elaine commented.
“What? I enjoy a soothing libation from time to time,” Aaron replied.
“I believe your sister was more accustomed to your other form of libation,” Frederica teased.
Lord Marcombe chuckled. “You do know His Lordship well,” he agreed. Frederica turned to him with a smile.
“Quite,” she answered. “I have seen him from a boy to a man and have learned all his tricks in the process.”
“She is like another sister,” Aaron elaborated as he turned to his friend.
“I see. It is a wonder we have never met before,” Lord Marcombe stated.
“I have been away from this country for many years,” Frederica explained.
“Yes, but now that she has returned, you will see much more of her,” Elaine interjected. “We thoroughly intend to take advantage of every moment she has.”
“I look forward to it,” Lord Marcombe replied.
“As do I,” Frederica answered as their eyes met and she felt a flutter of something unfamiliar in her stomach.
They remained deep in conversation as they continued on their way to the parlor, the unpleasantness of the previous night all but forgotten.
The house smelled, but Liam did his best not to react to it. There was no telling how long it had been since it was last cleaned. The Hollingsworths’ situation was dire and his help was needed, which was why he was there.
The house, if it could be called so, was nothing but a two-room shack with a straw-covered floor and a single table at the center. Mr. Hollingworth’s bed lay beside it.
“How are you, my friend?” Liam asked gently as he handed the basket of food to one of the man’s daughters. He was loath to place it on the table, where maggots crawled and the remnants of their last meal were turning green and black before him.
He sat on the bed beside the ailing man. The daughter disappeared behind a door a moment later.
“Your Lordship,” Mr. Hollingsworth said between rasping coughs. “How did you know?”
“I have my spies,” Liam smiled. “Mrs. Buttersmith told me you had fallen ill, and I know your daughters are also unwell,” he elaborated. “I thought you might be in need of some help, and I see that I am right.”
One of the girls coughed behind him. She was thin and pale, and her hair was stringy and matted to her head in some places from resting upon it for so long. She would have been a pretty girl if things were different, her hair done and her clothes clean and new.
It pained Liam to see people in such conditions. He did not believe God made man to live under such circumstances, and it was the responsibility of those more privileged to help those in need.
It had been many years since Liam had begun visiting Wipperton, and at every visit, he sought to help those in need. Everdale was a land of great beauty, but there was also great want. The Duke’s absence had seen many of the people of the town fall into dire straits as their landlords took advantage of them and sought to take the very food from their mouths. He hoped the Duke’s return would see a change to it all, but he was only one man and change took time.
“How long has it been?” Mr. Hollingsworth asked as he smiled weakly at him.
“Two years, I believe,” Liam answered. “When I was last in Everdale you were visiting your brother in London.”
The man nodded gently. “Yes, he was unwell at the time. He died a few months later, and his daughter came to live with us,” he informed. “Mary is here somewhere. I will introduce you.”
Liam nodded. “Do not trouble yourself. I am sure she is, but you need to rest.”
“No,” Mr. Hollingsworth replied. “It is what’s proper,” he insisted.
“We have been friends too long for propriety, and you are all unwell,” Liam replied. “If you will allow me, I would have my physician come to check on your health.”
“You do too much. The food is enough,” Mr. Hollingsworth insisted.
“And yet I would do more,” Liam answered. “How did this happen?”
Mr. Hollingsworth’s cough filled the house, and a groan from the other room alerted Liam to its occupants’ condition. He wondered how many of them were behind the door.
“A year ago, the girls became ill. They worked in London in a factory, but it damaged their lungs. They came home hoping the fresh air would help, but it hasn’t.”
“All of them?” Liam interrupted.
Mr. Hollingsworth was barely able to nod his response, but the small motion was enough to answer Liam’s question.
“They hoped to be back in London by now, and back to work, but they only seem to be getting worse. They were unable to find any trade to suit them, and with the extra mouths, I had to do more to support us. Then a few months ago I was injured while working in my field. The wound got infected and refused to heal. I couldn’t afford the physician’s fee and did my best to treat it myself.”
Liam’s gaze fell at the all too familiar tale. The provider of the house falling ill meant devastation to those in his care. Mr. Hollingsworth was another example of this.
“My condition worsened after that,” Mr. Hollingsworth continued. “I just can’t seem to get myself together.”
“I will have my physician visit you tomorrow,” Liam insisted. “I do not want to hear of protests. You need his help. Let me worry about his fee.”
“You are too kind. Just like your mother,” Mr. Hollingsworth commented.
“If she were here, you would not be in such a state,” Liam answered.
“She was far less busy than you, Your Lordship, she had more time to dedicate and her home was still in this part of the country. You are far away in Marcombe now.”
Liam nodded. “Still, I should have stayed in better contact with you.”
“Do not blame yourself, Your Lordship. You have always looked after the people of this village, even when it was no longer your home.”
Liam had been a child when his mother lived in Wipperton. They had the nicest house in the parish at the time, and it was she who had first taught him what it was to care for the less fortunate. His father was abroad, as he often was, and his mother hated living in the manor alone, so she returned to her ancestral home. Liam had maintained the house even after her passing.
“My mother loved it here,” he commented as he held Mr. Hollingsworth’s hand. “She was particularly fond of you.”
The old man smiled. “I remember her as a girl. She was always so lovely to everyone. There wasn’t a person in town who didn’t love her.”
“Mother did leave an impression,” Liam commented as he got to his feet. “I have to go, Mr. Hollingsworth, but I will return tomorrow with the physician.”
The man nodded silently. “Tomorrow,” he said as he closed his eyes and began to drift off. Liam watched him until he was asleep before leaving the house.
“Your Lordship,” the girl called after him as he walked from the house. She smiled at him. “Will you be coming back?”
“Yes. Tomorrow I will bring the physician,” he informed.
“You will help us?” she questioned. “We would be most grateful to you,” she continued and Liam got the distinct feeling that there was more to her gratitude than simply words. He bristled.
“There is no need for gratitude. It is my pleasure to help your father,” he answered.
“But my father is unable to repay your kindness,” she continued as she stepped nervously toward him. “I know that help often requires compensation.”
“Not mine,” Liam said clearly. “Neither do I require nor do I desire anything from you. Good day.”
He turned from the house, and the feeling that filled him was one that he found unpleasant. There were some who would have taken advantage of the family’s situation, who would have used their need in order to exploit them for their own desires and purposes. Liam was no such man. He cared.
“Aaron? Elaine?” Liam called as he returned to his friends’ rented house. Mrs. Teed, the housekeeper, removed his coat and draped it over her arm.
“His Lordship and the Lady are both still out,” she informed. “Would you like to dine without them this evening?”
“No,” Liam answered. “I can wait.” He checked the clock. It was still relatively early in the evening. They were probably still in town visiting their former music tutor and would return soon.
Liam found that the thought of their tutor, the one who had been the instructor to them and Lady Chaput, brought fond memories of the lady to his mind.
Frederica Chaput was a charming woman, with one of the most pleasant smiles he had ever seen. She was an incredible hostess. Liam could not remember being better looked after in the house of another, and it was not even her own. What more would she do for them if it were?
He chuckled as he remembered the lively conversation had that day, and how Lady Chaput challenged as much as she was challenged in their discourse. She gave Aaron plenty to answer for as he gave her, and Liam could clearly see the fraternal affection he spoke of between them. However, it was her interaction with Elaine that most endeared her.
Liam had known Elaine for many years. She was not a woman easily given to friendship. She liked being alone and her independence was something she pursued with great earnest. She was somewhat unconventional, and others sometimes found that independence difficult to contend with. Her friend seemed completely unaffected by this.
Lady Chaput seemed pleasant in every attribute, and a worthy friend. He wondered what her husband was like to deserve such a wife. Would he get the opportunity to meet the man he had heard so little of? He had not been mentioned once in their conversation, though Liam was aware that the lady was married.
He breathed deeply. It had been a long day and he was beginning to feel it. Liam looked around the house and found a number of things that would make Elaine unhappy.
“Could you fix the pillows in the sitting room?” he asked Mrs. Teed. “And align those paintings on the wall?” he continued as one by one he listed the items which would cause his friend distress. She was very particular about the things around her and found disorder particularly abhorrent.
“Yes, Your Lordship,” the woman replied. “I will see to them right away.”
“Thank you. Her Ladyship does not like to see crooked paintings,” he informed.
“Yes, sir,” the housekeeper answered as he walked further into the house. Liam retreated to his room to rest until his friends returned home.
Liam lay across the bed and closed his eyes. He draped his arm over them as he forced himself to relax, as thoughts of Mr. Hollingsworth and his family plagued him. His mother cared so much for the people of the parish and he felt as if he had failed them.
He had lived his life living up to the expectations of two vastly different parents. His father was a man of business, whose prowess had made him a tidy fortune, one that his mother was happy to share with those who could not make such a sum in their lifetime. He did his best to be both of them, but eventually one gave way to the other.
He was thirty-three now and unmarried, with a new business about to get off the ground and the one he already had in operation. He had inherited the manufacturing company from his father and had made it quite prosperous in his time as its head.
However, his interest lay abroad, and that was the reason for the new direction he was taking in his life. It was a direction that brought into question all he had done in his life before.
He had no one. His parents were gone and he had no siblings, which might have explained his constant presence in the lives of Aaron and Elaine. He enjoyed their company immensely – they were the siblings he would have wished for if his parents had provided them. Still, there was something missing in all of their lives – a companion.
Elaine and Aaron had each other primarily, however that would change. Elaine already had a suitor and it would not be as long as Aaron thought before some lady snagged his attention and kept it. Then where would that leave him? Liam had no prospects, and he was not a man who amused himself by entertaining ladies with no intention of marrying. He lived a simple life.
Liam opened his eyes and looked up into the dark. He needed to make another change in his life. He needed to find someone to live it with. Who and what he was he looking for he had no concept of, but he was sure that once he opened himself to it the lady would appear.
God had a way of showing up once the doors were open.