The Extended Epilogue
10 Years Later
“And that, my dear Catherine, is why Mr. Bentham believes women should have autonomy over their own lives. The right to divorce and financial independence being amongst the many things he lists as necessary for a just and equitable society.”
Marjorie gazed down in the wide hazel eyes of her eldest daughter. At nine years of age, Catherine was already a curious and thoughtful child, and Isaac insisted she was her mother’s spitting image.
She possesses my looks, and her father’s patience. Always thinking, and watching, and determining things I haven’t even seen.
Her youngest daughter, four-year-old Madeline, was much the opposite as her sister. She took after their father in appearance, with her shiny black hair and bright brown eyes, but she had her mother’s wild energy and, as Isaac would say, loud-mouthed tendencies.
At present, Madeline was running around the parlor with a ribbon clutched in each hand, pretending she could fly. She had no interest in what her mother and older sister were discussing, but, as she was only four, Marjorie would forgive her for her lack of attention.
Catherine, however, appeared fascinated.
“Does that mean men and women will be equal soon, Mama?”
Marjorie hesitated, unsure how to answer that question without harming her young daughter’s blossoming spirit. There was still such a long way to go. Some days, she felt despair, wondering if they would reach their goal of equality, though she would never admit to having such doubts out loud…
A warm, familiar hand rested over hers and gave it a reassuring squeeze. She turned and smiled softly up at Isaac, who was sitting next to her. Only he knew of those dark moments, when she felt as if they were running out of hope, and he was always the one to help dig her out of that darkness.
Turning his gaze to Catherine, he said, “There’s still a lot of fighting to be done, angel. However, it’s women like your mother, and someday yourself, who will lead the way into a new age.”
Marjorie’s heart swelled, and she smiled up at him.
He always knows exactly what to say.
Looking to her daughter, she added, “And it is good men like your father that make our fight possible. They are our allies, as we strive to be seen as equals.”
Catherine looked appropriately awed. “Is that why you two fell in love? Because you were allies?”
Marjorie laughed. “Well … I wouldn’t say that exactly, my dear.”
The girl frowned. “Then, how did you fall in love?”
Marjorie and Isaac shared a look.
“He was handsome, but blind,” she said.
“She was beautiful, but stubborn,” he replied. Then, to Catherine he continued, “It was not easy, but your mother and I managed to overcome our own weaknesses, which were keeping us apart. Once we were able to accomplish that, there was no stopping us from being together.”
“That’s so romantic,” the child gushed. She already loved her mother’s favorite romance novels, and Marjorie recognized that twinkling in her daughter’s eyes. Even now, her little girl was imagining the man she would find who would fit her as well as Isaac fit Marjorie, or Mr. Darcy fit Miss Elizabeth.
Speaking of which…
“Look at the time,” Marjorie declared, pointing to the large grandfather clock against the wall. “It is nearly past your bedtimes.”
Catherine groaned. “But Mama…”
“No buts, young lady,” Marjorie said with a shake of her head. “Come along. Your father will grab your sister, and we shall all go upstairs.”
All rose to obey, though Catherine continued to grumble under her breath. Isaac snatched Madeline under his arm and carried her from the room as she squirmed and giggled, attempting to escape. Marjorie walked with Catherine, who quickly overcame her pique and began asking more questions about the writings of Mr. Jeremy Bentham.
They took the girls to their shared room and prepared them for bed. Once they were both tucked in and snug, Isaac grabbed the well-worn copy of Pride and Prejudice. Marjorie sat in a rocking chair nearby and listened contentedly as her husband read to their girls, weaving the tale of Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy together with a familiarity that only came from a story rooted deep in one’s soul.
It wasn’t long before both girls were sound asleep. Isaac marked their spot in the book and carefully placed it on the little table between the girls’ beds. Then, he walked over to Marjorie and offered her his hand.
“Shall we go to bed as well?” he asked.
Smiling, she nodded and wound her fingers through his. Hand in hand, they quietly left their daughters’ room and made their way down the hall to their own. Once inside, they broke apart, so they could each get ready for bed.
“I was thinking we should take the girls to see Harriet and the twins next week,” Marjorie said as she changed into her nightdress.
“That would be nice,” Isaac readily agreed as he changed clothes as well. “It’s been nearly a month since we last saw them.”
“An age,” Marjorie agreed with a grin, wrapping a shawl around her shoulders, and moving to sit at her vanity and brush out her hair. “The boys have probably grown in that short amount of time, though. They’ve been growing like weeds. Susan told me in her last letter they will likely be taller than her by the end of the year.”
“That’s not an incredible feat,” Isaac chuckled. “Your cousin does not share your height, after all.”
He had a point, though Marjorie was still inclined to believe Susan when she said the twins were becoming little giants. She smiled, thinking of her cousin.
Taking the position of governess in Harriet’s household had been the best thing that could have happened for Susan. Marjorie had seen such a change in her cousin as a result. Her personality was lighter, and she smiled more easily.
In fact, if not for her position as the twins’ governess, she would have never found love…
“Mother wrote to me today,” Isaac suddenly said, coming up behind her and meeting her gaze in her mirror.
“Oh?” Marjorie arched a brow, pushing her musings of Susan’s fairy tale aside for the time being. “What did she have to say?”
“She and your mother are enjoying their tour across the continent very much,” he answered with a sigh.
She smiled. “Cheer up. They’re having fun, and that’s what should matter.”
“They are old women,” Isaac grumbled. “They should not be traveling alone.”
“Well, you can attempt that argument with them when they return,” Marjorie shrugged. “Just as last time, however, I predict that you’ll lose.”
“You are not very helpful in the matter,” he declared before dropping a kiss on the top of her head.
Giggling, she stood and followed him to bed, dropping her shawl along the way. Sliding under the covers, she immediately moved closer to him, so he could wrap his arms around her.
They lay like that for long moments, their silence comfortable and familiar after ten years together.
Just as her eyelids were beginning to grow heavy, he surprised her by asking, “Are you still as happy as I am after all these years?”
Frowning, she turned her head up so she could look at him.
“What a strange question.”
“Just answer it,” he replied, his brow furrowing in that way it did when he was embarrassed.
Giggling, she thought about her response for a moment before saying, “The question of our troubles was fully answered in the perfect happiness of our union.”
He studied her intently. “Did you just quote Emma? Not very well, mind you.”
She released a laugh and playfully shoved at his shoulder. “I believe it accurately communicates the proper sentiment.”
Grinning, he grabbed her wrist and kissed the palm of her hand.
“Will you ever stop quoting Austen to me? Or, for that matter, teasing me?”
She giggled in response. “Will you ever stop being so teasable? Or, for that matter, lovable?”
Staring down into her eyes, he promised, “So long as you stay who you are, I’ll never stop.”
She cupped his cheek, loving him more and more every day.
“Do you promise to always remain by my side?” she whispered.
He nodded. “Always.”
She closed the distance between them and kissed him softly, pouring out all her love and joy into that connection with him, hoping he could feel their depths within her. For ten years, they had lived side-by-side, loving, laughing, and building a family, just as she’d dreamed they would.
For ten years, this man had done all he could to make her smile, and she in turn had made sure that he enjoyed his life. Though neither of them was perfect by any means, their connection was unshakeable, and their union unbreakable. Never again would they allow misunderstandings and blind prejudice to pull them apart.
They were stronger than they had been in the beginning, and they continued growing stronger in their love and commitment to each other. Marjorie couldn’t imagine her life without the man in her arms, and she knew, deep in her soul, that he wouldn’t have a life had she not forced one upon him.
Together they were whole, and they would stay together, side by side, for all their days until their last one.
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Strains of music drifted up from the main hall below, soft and melancholic; the undulating measures of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks brought to life by the local carolers, who had walked their frozen feet about the countryside to go a-wassailing and were now at the Duke of Hartford’s door for their grand finale.
It was a long-standing tradition that they should end their singing in this grand hall, where the good family would offer warm victuals and beverages to reward their journey through the cold.
The old nurse upstairs, pale and worn with the years, usually liked the sound of Christmas carols, but today she looked down at the wee black-haired child stirring in her arms and wished the merry voices far away. The child had only just drifted off to sleep, and though the carols spoke of peaceful little towns and sleeping babes, it was serving here only to wake the child in the nurse’s arms.
The wee thing stirred, shooting a plump hand out from between the soft folds of the coverlet that wrapped her tightly around, and tilted her head back in a sleepy cry. The nurse crooned to her gently, rocking back and forth in the chair, until the baby had calmed once again.
“There you are,” she sighed happily, rising from her chair and taking the baby to the nearby cradle nearby, then nestling her peacefully again amid the silks. “Your mama will be home soon from the Christmas ball, and, after she greets those noisy carolers, I feel certain you will enjoy her warm embrace again.”
The baby’s eyes remained tightly shut, and she let out a whiffling sigh. The nurse turned from her and walked out into the upstairs hall. There was light, golden and full, spilling up the stairs along with the music. The carolers were on to Joy to the World, and the song rang raucously up the staircase.
“Heavens,” the nurse complained to herself. “Haven’t these people ever heard of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen? Or at least a noel of a quieter variety.”
She grumbled to herself as she walked, but it was a good-natured grumble. She had been with the family for many years, helping to care for the duchess of the house, even before the baby had come along, and her crusty exterior hid a warm, loving heart.
It was because of her familiarity with the grounds and home that she noticed something amiss just as she was about to slip down the servant’s staircase in pursuit of a warm cup of tea to help her weather the nighttime.
She was opening the door when she heard movement from the direction of Her Grace’s chambers—something like a stifled cry. She was a nurse—she was especially attuned to cries of all sorts. She knew better than to stick her nose in where it did not belong, but she found she couldn’t help herself.
She crept along the hall and stood in the alcove outside Her Grace’s door. She was concealed somewhat from anyone looking from the hall and almost entirely from the people inside the room. She peered inside through a crack in the door—and saw a most astounding scene.
The Duchess of Hartford had returned from the Christmas ball earlier than intended—that much was apparent. The nurse saw her mistress through the crack in the door, slim and beautiful, her dark hair caught up atop her head; a gorgeous green gown spilling down to the ground. The nurse would have knocked and gone to Her Grace to inform her about the baby’s well-being, if it weren’t for the figure that stepped out into view almost immediately, stopping her in her tracks.
She knew the man well, though he was rarely around the estate these days. He was of medium height, well-built beneath his tailored coat, with dark hair. The nurse knew who he was, just as she feared him. There was a certain threatening way about him when he spoke that she had always disliked, and when he stopped coming around the estate a few years ago, she had been glad of it. She knew her lady resented him and saw the fact confirmed in her mistress’ face.
“What are you doing here?” Her Grace asked the man, clearly afraid.
The man’s back was still turned to the nurse; he spoke in a low voice. “You know why I’m here. What is it, Priscilla? Why do you behave like a hunted woman?”
“You know why.” She stood, clearly frightened, and reached for the bell to ring for the servants. “I think it’s high time you left.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” the man growled. “You’ve known what I want—what I need—since we’ve been acquainted and yet you’ve denied it to me. I will give you one last chance. Either you give in, or I will take away the thing you love most in the world.”
He took a step forward, his voice dropping ominously. “You made a mistake when you grew with child,” he said sharply. “I’ve heard it said that a child is like your own heart beating outside of you, small and vulnerable and so very fragile. It would be such a shame if something were to happen to her, don’t you think?”
“You wouldn’t dare,” the duchess said, tears streaming down her cheeks.
The nurse didn’t understand what was happening, but she knew enough to know an emergency when she saw one. She moved to open the door and intercede, but, before she could do so, things suddenly happened very quickly inside the room.
Her Grace, presumably understanding that her situation was dire without aid, lunged for the bell rope. Before she laid her fingers on it, however, the man moved lightning-quick and intercepted her, grabbing her by the wrist and yanking her away from her saving grace.
“You’ve lost your chance, Priscilla,” the man growled, spinning her around. “But know this: you have not been brave enough to save your daughter. She is mine, and she will pay for the sins of her mother.”
The woman struggled violently, but the man holding her was stronger. He threw her down, and the nurse watched with horror as the beautiful woman fell back against a nearby armoire, her head crashing onto the wood before she slumped senseless to the ground. A dark, spreading pool of blood flowed across the floor beneath her head.
The man paused for a moment, then, strangely, knelt beside the woman and stared at her for a long moment, his arms limp at his sides. It was the posture of a broken man. The nurse didn’t understand why that should be, but she knew there were more pressing matters to attend to. She thought fast: She knew she could run and call for help, but that would give the man enough time to steal the child and wreak his vengeance on the duchess at last. But she also knew if she went to the child now, the man might escape, and she would spend the rest of her life wondering if he was going to return and hurt the little girl.
Almost without thinking, the nurse whirled and found herself fleeing down the hallway towards the nursery. She ripped open the doorway, breathing heavily, and caught up the child in her arms, wrapping an extra blanket around the sleeping girl and then ducking out into the hall and away to the servant’s staircase without looking back.
She would see to the girl’s future, not returning the child until she knew it was safe. The man she had seen commit such an abominable crime was a powerful man, and she knew that the babe in her arms would never be safe while she had that man as her enemy.
As she fled into the black night, the old nurse heard the last strains of a carol fading behind her into the night: In fields where they lay keeping their sheep, on a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
“The Most Honorable Marquess of Davenport and the Duke of Hampshire are here to see you, Your Grace.”
Lewis Darby smiled to himself at the butler’s austere introduction, casting a sideways glance at his father, as the two visitors waited to be brought into the Duke of Hartford’s drawing room. He’d been a Marquess all his life, but the official introduction at formal events always struck him as odd. It seemed like another world—his father’s world, in fact, and not his own.
“This place looks more bedraggled every time we come,” his father, the duke, said under his breath to Lewis.
Lewis shook his head with a smile. “Only someone as entitled to wealth as you have always been would think that this paragon of elegance and style is in any way bedraggled.”
“It is as though the fellow gave up after the duchess’s death,” the duke sighed, leaning on his cane, and looking out of the window.
It was a well-known story in the area—Lewis had grown up hearing about it, though he had been only a boy when the tragedy had occurred—but, as with most stories revolving around scandals, he was unsure how much of it had been embellished over the years.
All he knew for certain was that years ago there had been a Duchess of Hartford and a little daughter, Anastasia. One night, around Christmastime, a thief had broken into the house and brutally killed the duchess, before making off with the child into the night.
It was a story that suited the combined classes nicely—they were allowed to shiver in their beds and warn their maids against leaving doors unlocked without having to care too much about the truth of the matter.
Lewis had not been so easily satisfied as a boy, and though he had learned enough not to ask questions all these years later, he still wondered about the mysterious disappearance of the child. Perhaps there were indeed thieves roaming the land and killing innocent ladies, but were there any that would then saddle themselves with the responsibility and frustration of caring for a young child?
His thoughts came to a quick halt as the butler returned, pulling open great oak doors and ushering the two guests inside. The Duke of Hartford rarely saw anyone these days, but the Duke of Hampshire had been a long-time friend, and Hartford had always seemed to have a fancy for Lewis as well. They came as often as they could, and it seemed to lift the old man’s spirits somewhat.
“You are a bit tardy today,” his voice came from within, soft and thin. He was sitting in a chair by the fireside, a pipe in one hand, a frown on his face. “Usually you stick more closely to regular visiting hours.”
“We are not regular visitors,” the Duke of Hampshire said, a little too brightly.
Lewis had noticed that his father always tended to speak in a crisp, cheerful sort of way around his old friend, as though they were still young men on a hunting excursion or newly married gentlemen enjoying a pint of beer after a meeting at the House of Lords. It was the polite thing, after all, to pretend tragedy did not exist.
“We are old friends, are we not?” his father continued, turning grandly to the butler. “Bring us a spot of something to drink, will you?”
Lewis sat quietly across from his father and Hartford. There was something different about the older man today. He seemed almost frail, and being a strong and well-built gentleman, the weakness appeared all the more alarming on his sturdy frame.
“Is something the matter?” Lewis asked without thinking.
The Duke of Hampshire cleared his throat and shot Lewis a sharp glance. “Of course not. It’s a crisp, cool day, and you’re looking very well, my friend,” he said quickly.
“I am not, and there is no need for you to make up nonsense to convince me otherwise,” the Duke of Hartford said wearily. “At least your son is honest, Christian Darby. You are not fooling me into believing myself the man I once was.”
“My son speaks out of turn.”
“He does not, and you know it,” the older man returned quickly. “You should be more thankful for your family, my friend.”
He dropped his head for a moment, as if making no effort to resist the weight of gloom that hung palpably in the room. When he raised it again, his eyes found Lewis’, not his old friend’s. “Tell me, Lewis, did you not once wish that you were an investigator? I remember you playing with such fantasies as a child, always looking for clues and trying to unravel mysteries.”
Lewis felt suddenly self-conscious, knowing his father’s eyes would be boring into him. He spoke out of habit, knowing well what was expected of him over the years. “I am a titled man,” he said quietly. “I have a duty to society and to my family. The roles of constable and investigator are for men who have no such responsibilities. I will use my wit in other ways.”
“Oh, fear not lad. I wasn’t going to ask you to forsake your fortune and family for such a menial task,” Hartford said, with a wry, humorless smile. “I was merely wondering if you have ever used those skills in your own life. I feel I would be a bad investigator myself. I would always be looking behind every tree for the thing that I had lost or could not find. I would never be able to give up the chase once I had begun it.”
“Perhaps that is what would make you a good investigator,” Lewis said quietly.
“No, that is what leads to obsession and obsession alone,” the old man stood then, not as shakily as his voice and demeanor suggested and leaned on the mantelpiece. “I have never recovered from the death of my wife and the disappearance of my daughter,” he said quietly. “I have always wondered if, somehow, the truth of the matter is more complicated than I was told.”
Lewis felt a jolt of surprise. Only moments ago, he had been wondering that very same thing in the hallway outside. “How so, sir?”
The old man shook his head. “No, we cannot speak on this matter. I have borne it for too long, and you see that even when given the chance to speak frankly with beloved friends, I choose to harp on things of the past rather than on things of the future.”
There it was—the opening to return to proper and shallow conversation that Lewis knew his father was waiting for, but he could not bring himself to do it. Carefully avoiding his father’s gaze, he turned to the Duke of Hartford.
“I do not think anyone would expect you to recover fully from such a thing, Your Grace. It is my understanding that you would be well within your rights to grieve their loss and desire answers for the rest of your life.”
He heard his father clear his throat with impatience but did not turn to look. “Did you ever wonder why it was that a thief, once breaking into the house, would have then gone on to take the child? Have you ever thought about the crime as perhaps being connected closer to home; perhaps by an enemy or someone you know you cannot trust?”
“Lewis,” the Duke of Hampshire interjected quickly. “I’m sure you do not mean to be insulting, but you are doing a bang-up job of it nonetheless.”
The Duke of Hartford raised his hand to stop his old friend, his eyes on Lewis. “You think there is still a chance that we might find her?” He had a bright, terrifying look in his eye, like a thirsty man offered a sip of water in the desert.
Lewis took a slow breath. “I am only concerned that you have given up the search too early.”
“The constable has closed the case,” Hartford said. “If my Anastasia lives still, she is gone forever. She was but a baby when she was taken—she doubtless doesn’t even know who I am.”
“Or who she is,” Lewis said.
“This is madness.” The Duke of Hampshire stood, perplexed. “I must be the one to say it: I’m sorry, my dear friend, but the tragedy that struck you has in part endured because you have clung to it with such ferocity. You refuse to forget; refuse to remarry; refuse to allow that what was lost to you is lost forever. My son is a man who loves mysteries and has told me in the past that he is never happier than when he is unraveling a puzzle. He is indulging himself, not you, by offering to help in this way.”
“I haven’t offered anything,” Lewis said quickly. “And you know that I have given up all hope of solving mysteries and devoting my life to anything but the family business. I have resigned myself; this would be in the service of a friend.”
“It was for that reason that I hoped you would answer my invitation today,” Hartford said. “I have received a piece of news recently—word that a woman has crucial information about Anastasia’s whereabouts and has come to share that information with me.”
“For a price, no doubt,” Lewis’ father said drily.
“No, she is the daughter of an old woman who used to work here many years ago; the daughter of Anastasia’s nurse, actually.”
Lewis could see now that he had been correct in suspecting a change in the old duke’s demeanor earlier. This startling news had clearly awakened feelings of hope in the older man, and surely, Lewis thought, there can be few things as painful as hope after years of disappointment and grief.
“I was wondering,” the old man went on, “if you and your father might stay awhile and hear her news with me. I am not certain that I can bear it on my own, and, if she has word that my daughter lives, I want to share that information with those who would help me in the quest to recover her.”
The words had barely died on his lips when there was a knock at the door. The Duke of Hartford, already standing at the ready, straightened suddenly and walked over, putting out his pipe and taking a shuddering breath, as if to prepare himself for an ordeal.
Lewis’ father turned to his son quickly in the moment his friend was distracted and said under his breath, “I don’t know if it can be good for you to encourage him, Lewis, but I’m also not sure it’s good for you to be encouraged in your own silly quest for investigation and mystery. Some things are just as they seem.”
“And some things are not,” he countered quietly. Then, in a more even tone, he added, “but you need not worry, Father. Think of this as a way for me to get all the investigation nonsense out of my mind if you must. You know I am committed to the future of the Darby name, and all young people have to learn to conquer their own desires at some point.”
His father seemed satisfied for the moment, but Lewis had not the time to fully embrace that fact, before the door swung open and the butler stepped inside again, this time accompanied by a little woman in lace cap, bowing and blushing and curtsying her way in to greet the Duke of Hartford. All three gentlemen stood for the woman, who had clearly been working in service her entire life, and Hartford led her to a chair as if she were the Queen of England coming for a brief stay.
“Please, do be seated,” he said. “You must be Miss Ellis.”
“Peggy,” she said quickly, curtsying again as she sat. “I believe my mother knew you, Your Grace?”
“Yes,” Hartford said quietly, his eyes far away. “Many years ago.”
Lewis had at first thought this little woman was flushed with hard work and nerves, but when she had settled somewhat, he saw that she had been crying and was upset. Her hands plucked nervously at her grey skirt, and her eyes skittered about the room.
“I was told that I might speak with you alone, Your Grace,” she said to Hartford.
“I know the matter is a sensitive one,” he countered gently enough, showing what Lewis considered to be remarkable patience, “but I can assure you my guests are both very trustworthy, and I desire them to hear this news with me.”
“It’s only that, well…” Peggy began to look increasingly nervous, and took a shuddering breath. “I don’t see that you’ll be awfully happy with what I have to say.”
“All the more reason for you to say it quickly and have it done with,” Lewis said, stepping forward when he saw how terrified the woman’s words had made Hartford.
“Well, perhaps you’ve heard, but my mother, the former nurse of your daughter, passed away the day before last. She was doing poorly for a time and kept begging me to come up and see her. She had something she wanted to tell me, and I’m glad that I came when I did because she died in front of me.”
Tears began pouring down the poor woman’s cheeks, and she twisted the fabric of her skirt with greater zeal. “She asked me, ‘Do you remember that poor Duke of Hartford and his little daughter, Peggy?’ and I says yes of course, because everyone remembers, and she says, ‘I took her. I took the babe.’”
For a moment, Peggy’s words hung in the room like icicles, perilous and ready to spear the heart of anyone upon whom they fell. Then Hartford sat forward, his face black with fury.
“It was the nurse who did it?” he cried. “All along, it was that woman who killed my wife and took my baby?”
“No!” Peggy leapt to her feet, forgetting propriety in the moment. “No, she didn’t. She saw a man kill your wife—I’m not sure who, for she was not able to speak so well just then, but she saw it all happen and heard that he wanted to hurt your baby. She ran away and took the child and hid her far away, so that she would be out of harm’s way.”
“Why?” the Duke of Hartford seemed horrified and desperate at the same time. “Why not come to me?”
“She said that you would have been powerless to save the child.”
“Anastasia is my own blood,” Hartford cried, sinking back into his chair. “Of course, I could have saved her!”
“I’m not saying it was right, sir,” Peggy sobbed. “I’m just telling you what she told me. She said she thinks the lass is out of harm’s way now and bid me to look into the matter myself. I couldn’t do it, though. I just had to tell you directly, so that you could do what is right.”
Lewis’ mind spun. He couldn’t imagine how the Duke of Hartford must be feeling, but he knew that some more information was needed before the passion of the moment drove the poor woman away. “Where is she now?” he asked kindly. “Surely she told you how we might reunite the family.”
Peggy bit her lip. “That’s the part you won’t fancy, sir,” she said weakly.
“That’s the part?” Hartford asked, incredulous.
“Yes, sir, because she said she took the baby and left her on the doorstep of an earl in London.”
Peggy’s eyes filled with tears. “She, she couldn’t say. …She tried, but she was gasping something awful, and then her eyes went all blank before I could hear the truth.”
“She didn’t tell you?” Hartford asked, incredulous. Lewis could see the shock settling on the man’s features. “She told you everything, but didn’t give you the name of the earl upon whose doorstep she laid my daughter?”
Peggy hung her head.
“No, sir,” she said weakly, “that is all I know.”
Hartford dropped his head for a moment, his eyes on the ground. Lewis had seen the look of desperate hope in them a moment before, but now he was a shattered man again.
Ana Parker reached up, gently tugging at the ribbon until it came loose in her hand; smoothing down the elegant curls and preparing the hair before her ready for the ladylike style it deserved.
“Would you like your curls up today, my lady?” she asked the girl sitting in front of her, Lady Violet. “I know you have plans to be outside today, and I can’t help but think it would keep your style safe from the breeze.”
Lady Violet looked up brightly at Ana in the mirror. She was eighteen years old, in the prime of her life—petite, blonde, hazel-eyed, with the sort of magical beauty and kind features that drew people to her and made her a favorite in every sphere.
Ana had grown up as part of the staff of the Norton home, employed by Violet’s father, the Earl of Cheshire, for her entire life, serving first as a chimney girl, then a kitchen skivvy, and, finally, being promoted to lady’s maid to the elegant daughter of the home.
In truth, the girls had grown up together. They were only a few months apart in age, and their temperaments matched so perfectly that their friendship only deepened as the years passed. When Violet was at last permitted a private maid, she requested Ana at once, thus raising the girl from her lowly place among the below stairs staff to a position amongst the respected upstairs staff.
“Of course, I wish it up,” Violet said brightly. “After all, I shall be seeing my friends today for tea, and I know that Lady Eloise will have hers done in the latest fashion. I simply cannot keep going to excursions like this with my hair down around my shoulders, like a common schoolgirl. I am officially out in society, and I must dress the part.”
She winked at Ana in the mirror. “How lucky you are that you have a prescription for what is appropriate and can therefore avoid the common pitfalls of fashion faux pas.”
Ana smiled back at her good naturedly. She found Violet sometimes to be quite naïve, but she also knew the girl was kind and funny and enjoyed her company. Glancing into the mirror, she caught sight of her own reflection and smiled to herself at the difference between them.
Violet was dressed in pale blue silk and lace: her gown had the kind of simple cut that only the most elegant women could wear because it required the most expensive fabrics to show off the figure to perfection. Violet looked as though she had stepped out of the French court, and Ana, a good hand at hair styling, pinned her mistress’s beautiful blonde curls up one by one, so that they piled glamorously atop her head and fell down artlessly about her face. Some elegant drop earrings alone were added as sufficient ornament for the exquisite young woman’s appearance.
In contrast, Ana knew herself to be a very different kind of woman than her young mistress. She was nineteen, and though her age was not so different from Violet’s, Ana often felt much older. She had not grown up with the casual ease and grace of a lady from high society, for Ana knew that her place was with the servants, and what Violet could say with ease would be grounds for dismissal for someone in a lower station.
Violet was petite and golden; she was all soft angles, like a Renaissance painting; Ana was tall and slim, with long black hair that she kept in a very plain style, pinned away from her face and smooth against her head. Her face was very pale and her eyes bright blue and searching, so that Violet often used to tease her by saying she looked as though she might have some mischief tucked away inside her.
Once, when Ana was a young girl, a passing guest at the Cheshire estate had caught sight of her cleaning out the fireplace and had proclaimed that she was, “the most startlingly beautiful creature” he’d ever seen. “It’s a pity she’s a servant,” he said. “She has the bearing of a queen.”
The comment had been met with an immediate reproof from the earl of the house, and Ana had learned from the relentless teasing in the servant’s quarters that it was not a good thing to be a beautiful servant. From that day on, she tucked her hair away and kept her eyes low in the company of others—except Violet, of course. Violet was safe, wholesome, and loving.
Ana put the final pin into her friend’s hair. “There,” she said gently. “You look very elegant, and Lady Eloise can take all her fine dresses from France and shove them.”
Violet blushed. “That is rather coarse talk, Ana,” she gasped, her eyes twinkling. “What would your mother say?”
Ana’s mother was, in fact, not her mother at all—but the housekeeper downstairs, Mrs. Ames, who had taken her in years ago, when she had first come to the Cheshire estate. There had been a verbal adoption of sorts—nothing official, but Ana had always known she was loved. The older woman was childless, a widow, who had never had children of her own but had taken Ana in and loved her as if she were.
She could be very strict, sometimes overly concerned with propriety, but, at her core, she was a deeply loving woman who cherished Ana more than life itself. Ana knew this, though the woman had never been the sort to speak of such things openly. Violet often teased her about the housekeeper’s proper ways and Ana’s tiny rebellions, but, in the end, Ana wanted to please the woman she called “mother” more than anything.
Together, the two girls walked downstairs to the main hall, and then through it to the garden outside, arm in arm. Ana knew she cut a severe figure in her plain brown muslin beside Violet’s lace and silk, but she was also just as confident that her friend didn’t care. Violet chattered away, as happy as a magpie, telling about her dreams of the upcoming ball they were both to attend.
“You’re attending,” Ana corrected her gently. “I will be there merely as your chaperone.”
“Why must you always belittle yourself in that way?” Violet asked. “You are coming as I am coming, and that’s enough.”
“I’m not belittling myself,” Ana interjected with a laugh. “I’m reminding you as often as possible to dissuade you from embarrassing us both, as you did at last month’s garden party. Do you remember how horrified Mrs. Leighton was when you introduced me as ‘your dear friend’, even though I was clearly there as a servant? She nearly fell over, and we both know that her center of gravity is unsteady to begin with.”
The girls giggled for a moment, and then Violet said, more seriously, “I know that you’re always kind about these things, Ana, but I wish you were a lady too; someone of standing, who wouldn’t have to attend the ball as a servant.”
Ana frowned gently as they made their way out onto the back veranda. “What use would I be to you as a lady?” she said. “We are close enough here, and there are plenty of your friends that are proper titled women.”
Violet sighed. “You know that I have no patience for all the pompous women my father thinks are appropriate companions. Really, what use is it to me to go to a ball and simper behind my fan, giggling and waiting for some young gentleman to sweep me off my feet, when I could be standing beside you and talking about things that actually matter?”
“Listen to yourself,” Ana laughed. “You’re a young woman who would rather have good conversation than a bit of light-hearted, romantic fun. My dear, you are singular amongst your kind.”
“I am not singular,” Violet retorted. “Because there is you, and you don’t care for all that pompous nonsense either.”
Ana shrugged. “Perhaps it would be fun to attend such an event with you as an equal, but that will never happen. It is better to embrace the friendship we already have and stop wishing for things that are impossible.”
Violet rolled her eyes. “Always so willing to accept the things you cannot control.”
Ana stopped at a tree in the garden and sat down on the stone bench beneath it. Violet perched beside her and closed her eyes. “This kind of day always makes me want to just lay back and dream about the future. I wonder what our lives will look like in a few years’ time. Papa is always talking about me finding suitors at these balls, and while I haven’t been particularly impressed with the gentlemen as of late, I can’t help dreaming about what perfection would be for me.”
Ana smiled. “I imagine ‘tall’ would feature somewhere in your description. You also speak most glowingly of the modern poets, so a fellow with a romantic disposition would probably suit you well. And wealthy, of course,” she added as an afterthought.
Violet sighed. “Yes, I would prize all those attributes. I would also appreciate someone whom I could show off at these odious dinner parties; someone who would still the mouths of all those tongue-wagging gossips who claim I’m too flighty to settle down.” She smiled at her friend. “And what about you? What kind of gentleman will you be looking for as you chaperone me to the ball?”
Ana rolled her eyes. “Again,” she said, “I don’t expect to find any gentleman at all while chaperoning you. The sort of men whom we will be speaking to are the sort of men fit for your station, not mine. The sort of young men I would be happy to see in a romantic setting are not likely to appear at this ball.”
“Then we shall be forced to dream outside the realm of the ball,” Violet said, grinning. “Do you imagine some man who will come riding in on a horse, handsome and weathered by the sea and years of faraway travel? Or do you expect someone closer to home, someone that you’ve always known but never thought to love, or do you have some other magical attribute for your paramour in mind?”
Ana shook her head at Violet’s teasing. “I would be happy with someone who loves me well, who is open to intelligent conversation, and who makes me laugh,” she said.
“All women say that,” Violet shrugged, “but they all want looks and money into the bargain as well, believe me.”
“My lady,” the butler interjected from across the lawn. “Your visitors are waiting in the parlor for tea.”
Ana felt the climate in the garden shift at once. So often with Violet, she was able to depend on their mutual friendship and forget the ways in which they were different, but it was at moments like this that she was reminded fully of her place in society, and in the life of her dear friend.
Violet stood, smiled passingly at Ana, and hurried off to the parlor, where she was expected to socialize with the friends she acknowledged from society, the “proper” women, who had been declared by all to be “her equal.”
Ana waited until she was alone in the garden, and then turned around and lay back on the cool stone bench, looking above her at the play of light between the shifting leaves. It was a chilly day; she would need to go inside soon and slip on a shawl or something to fight off the weather. She knew all this, and yet she was reluctant to move. She didn’t want to walk back inside and pass by the parlor, listening to all the happy sounds of merriment that she was sure was happening inside.
It wasn’t that she wanted to be a part of that life, exactly—it was that she wanted to be a part of any life and community. She certainly didn’t belong in Violet’s world outside her role as lady’s maid, and yet she also didn’t belong downstairs. The other servants teased her and, try as she might, she had never truly felt as if she had a place with them either.
She wondered if she was just one of those people who drifted through life alone, and the thought made her uneasy. She had Mrs. Ames, who loved her unconditionally, but she felt as though there was nowhere that she truly fitted in outside of that closeness. Violet was a dear, but she had other responsibilities and would forever be outside Ana’s social sphere. The other servants seemed to move about her in a fog of friendship that she couldn’t quite understand or describe.
She was happy enough in her own company, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was living a half-life of sorts; that there was something more to her past and to her future. She sat up, stretching, and then turned to go back inside. Whatever the future held for her, ruminating in the garden wouldn’t change it. She took a deep breath and slipped back into the role of servant that she had played all her life, trying not to think about how ill it had always seemed to fit around her slim shoulders.
“What can you tell me about your daughter?” Lewis asked, sitting down across from the Duke of Hartford with a pen and inkwell.
The two were settled back in the study at the Hartford estate. Lewis had determined to return the very next day after the visit with his father to do whatever he could to begin his search for Hartford’s daughter, but he knew better than to embark on such a quest without interviewing the person who knew the girl best.
Hartford looked more tired this morning; worn. He put a hand to his head and frowned. “She was a baby when she was taken,” he said. “I don’t even know if she would have the same coloring as she did then. Her eyes were blue, but aren’t all babies’ eyes blue at that age? Her hair was dark, but hair changes too.”
He looked up hopefully. “Didn’t you interview Peggy further after she left? Surely, she knows what kind of earl her mother would have been acquainted with. Perhaps there were papers in her belongings?”
Lewis frowned. “I asked all those questions, but it appears that Peggy was not so close with her mother as you might expect. In fact, she hadn’t seen her in years and didn’t know anything about the baby until yesterday. After a search of her mother’s belongings, she discovered that almost everything had been sold off. I’m confident that the truth of the matter was held in the nurse’s mind alone, not on a piece of paper.”
He continued, trying to speak in a reassuring, gentle voice. “All hope is not lost, however. There is much yet that we can learn from interview and investigation. You may think that everything is useless, but any small memories you might have could prove helpful.”
“I can point you to a painting of my wife, in case she takes after Priscilla,” His Grace said wearily, “but these things are not certain.”
He frowned suddenly, and then stood and walked over to his desk, opening a drawer, and rifling through it for a few minutes before returning with a scrap of paper upon which was drawn a small flower in black ink. The flower was lopsided and poorly concocted—almost childlike—but it was clearly a flower.
“There is this,” the duke said. “Although I don’t know that she will still have it.”
“Have what?” Lewis asked.
“It’s a birthmark of sorts that was on her right arm,” His Grace frowned, biting his lip. “I remember that Priscilla was convinced it was a defect of birth that would fade as the child grew older, so I don’t know how certain we can be that it remains still, but it would be something if the girl still had it on her arm, would it not?”
“Yes,” Lewis said, excited. “These things do not fade as often as we would like them to,” he smiled. “I know many a woman who has attempted to remove their birthmark with lemon juice and time spent indoors, but it is to no avail in most cases. I think this birthmark is very distinctive and could be the very thing that tells us for certain who your daughter is.”
They spoke on, but Lewis learned nothing else that seemed particularly pertinent to the case. At length, he pulled out a map that he had brought along with him and laid it out before the older man. It showed London and the surrounding country, even the area where the Hartford estate was nestled along a shaded route that ran between two hills. Lewis put his finger on that area, then moved his hand to another small village to the south.
“You are here, and we know that Peggy’s mother died here. It’s interesting to me that she stayed so close to you, even after all those years of being out of your employ. Surely there is something to be deduced here about the possible location of your daughter.” Lewis slowed down, not wanting to jump to conclusions. “I’m not saying that I can determine with certainty that she is near the location, but if the nurse really was acting in the girl’s best interest, perhaps she tried to stay nearby to keep an eye on the situation and make sure nothing terrible happened to her.”
“She stole my child,” the duke said coldly. “I don’t know how quickly, if ever, I might attach good motives to her actions.”
“But you shouldn’t be too quick to attach bad motives either,” Lewis said quietly. He knew that it was untoward of him to correct a man who was older than him, more respected, and a pillar of the community, but he didn’t want to compromise their mutual search by making erroneous assumptions. “It sounds as though she did what she did for the sake of your daughter’s wellbeing.”
Lewis turned around and saw with surprise that Frank Leighton, the Duke of Hartford’s younger brother, was standing in the doorway. Lewis hadn’t seen him in some time, but he expected as much these days. Frank was a busy man, handling much of his brother’s business in the years since the tragedy, and always away on travels to help keep the family estate running. He was a handsome man, with the trademark blonde hair of the Hartford name, though it was graying somewhat at the temples. His chocolate eyes were full of laughter.
“It is good to see you again,” he said, striding into the room.
“You’re back.” His Grace stood quickly, and Lewis noticed that he seemed suddenly more light-hearted, younger even, now that his brother was near. “We did not expect you for another fortnight.”
“I heard the news about Anastasia and wanted to come back and offer my assistance,” Frank exchanged a look with Lewis, as though to wordlessly ascertain his brother’s mental forbearance. Lewis nodded in response.
“You shouldn’t have come back,” Hartford sank back down into his seat. “I’ve held you back long enough with all this nonsense, chasing trails that have no end; waiting up at all hours in the hopes that my daughter will return. I’ve wasted my life since I lost them, and, by association, you’ve wasted yours as well.”
“Don’t speak so about my life,” Frank laughed kindly. “I’m happy enough with my choices, Brother.”
The duke turned to Lewis. “I don’t say this enough,” he said, “but you have heard me speak about how difficult it was to survive after I lost my Priscilla and my Anastasia. I tell you without a shred of exaggeration that Frank’s support was the only thing that made it possible for me to shoulder the burden of loss.”
Lewis looked at Frank and saw that the older man was uncomfortable with the praise. He turned away from his older brother with a touch of color in his cheeks.
“I know your life isn’t a waste,” the duke went on, speaking to his brother’s back. “But I still feel guilty that you’ve never married. I’ve held you back with all this … business … by being so fixated on things that happened in our youth instead of allowing you to look forward to the future.”
“Enough.” Frank turned around and shook his head. “I am not here to speak about the past—I am here to help you find a better future. If what you said in your letter is true, that Anastasia might still be alive, and as close as London at that, then I will not cease until we have found her together.” He turned to Lewis. “You are helping my brother with this endeavor, Lord Davenport?”
Lewis nodded. “I am.”
“Then I offer you my services, to assist you in any way I can.”
Lewis looked down at his notes and then looked back up at the man. “Well, you can start by drawing up a list of all the earls you know in this general area of London.” He indicated the map. “When you have it ready, I will do my best to track down information about their families—specifically any children they may have adopted around that time.”
“Why this area?” Frank asked, peering at the map.
“It’s nearest to where the nurse lived,” Lewis said. He bit his lip. “It’s just a supposition at this point. If it comes to naught, we can widen our net.”
Frank laid a kind hand on his brother’s frail shoulders in passing, nodded, and then took his leave to assemble the information.
Lewis waited until the meeting had drawn to a close, and then departed as well, intent on a meeting with his own aide in the investigation, a man he had known since childhood and trusted implicitly. He arrived at the pub where they had arranged to meet a few minutes early, but his friend was already there, leaning against the bar and arguing heatedly with the pub owner.
Ethan Middleton was a dandy in every sense of the word; the Earl of Blackwood was twenty-six years old, tall, lithe, with brown eyes and auburn hair—and a penchant for charming the ladies. He was only a year older than Lewis and the two were like brothers. Lewis was also tall, but his brown hair and broad shoulders gave him away as being no relation to his friend the loping Englishman.
He walked up to the bar and interrupted the argument at once. “What’s the meaning of all this?” he demanded.
Ethan turned to him with a smile, clapping him on the back in open friendship. “It’s only that this fine lad refuses to serve me the proper ale,” he said. “I told him that I am a man of breeding, and therefore I will not stoop to drink the same slop that he serves the fisherman and the sailors when they come into the village on their way to disreputable doings.”
Lewis raised his eyebrows. “Did you?”
“Back me up, friend,” Ethan said with a wink.
Lewis sighed and turned to the man behind the counter. “I’m afraid my friend here is right,” he said. “Only the disreputable can drink such swill.”
He paused a moment, and then added with a laugh, “which is of course, why you should order us up two pints at once.”
The pub owner threw back his head with a laugh and turned away. Ethan shrugged with annoyance. “You said you wanted to meet me so that you could ask a favor of me, and then, when I agree, you promptly ignore my need for defense in the public house.”
Lewis waited until the ales had been served, and then turned his back to provide privacy for their conversation. “My friend,” he said, “you wouldn’t need defense if you tried a little harder to fit in with the common folk. You antagonize them on purpose, and they’re only trying to live a wholesome and worthy life.”
Ethan shrugged and took a swig of the drink in his hand. “So, what is it that you require?” he asked.
“I was wondering if you might set out on a bit of a quest with me,” Lewis began. “There’s a woman—”
“Count me in,” Ethan said immediately, a twinkle in his eye.
Lewis laughed. “No, not the sort of woman you can charm, my friend. There’s a missing woman, and she has been missing since she was a baby. We have no leads, other than perhaps a location in London, and very little to aid us. I’m sure that it will involve attending the London Season, tracking down the most likely candidates, and dancing with them or otherwise engaging them in conversation, so we may determine their heritage in a proper manner.”
Ethan grinned broadly. “Pardon me, are you asking me to accompany you on a philandering expedition in the name of investigation?”
Lewis shook his head. “Perhaps I should not have asked you. This is serious, Ethan. Her father is beside himself.”
Ethan sobered. “I have to ask, is this Hartford’s daughter?”
“No good can come of this,” Ethan said quietly. “You know it cannot. They’ve scoured the countryside for years. The missing girl is a legend in these parts.”
Lewis looked down at his drink. “I’ve always been curious about her case. I want a chance to look into it—is that too much to ask? Besides, you’re a young man with a title and wealth; would it really be so inconvenient to give me a little of your time, even if it is for a lost cause?”
Ethan looked at him soberly for a moment, and then shrugged. “No, I suppose it would not be a problem for me. Are you telling me that your father has agreed to this waste of your time and resources?”
Lewis knew that his father had done so, for the time being, but he also knew that his young friend would be more convinced by a different tack. He took a swig of his ale and pushed back from the table. “Are you telling me it would bother you if he hadn’t agreed?”
Ethan broke out into a broad smile again. “You know me too well. You’ve offered an adventure, and there’s nothing I can think of that would make that truly unappealing to me, even if it does involve a bit of social rebellion.”
“Good.” Lewis took out a piece of paper he had written on earlier with the Duke of Hartford. “I have done a bit of research and have determined that there are three young ladies about the age of the missing girl, all of whom live within a reasonable distance and who are daughters of earls. I say we start with the first on the list.” He put his finger over the name. “There, the elegant Lady Emmaline. She is rumored to be quite beautiful.”
“You’ve already convinced me to join you,” Ethan winked. “No need to add further inducements. Tell me, do you intend to go directly to this lady’s house, knock on her door, and demand to know if she was taken in off a doorstep at a young age?”
“I’m subtler than that,” Lewis said. “I’ll tell you the fullness of my plan tomorrow morning, but for now, suffice to know that I think our best plan is to begin at the first ball of the season—likely all three ladies will be in attendance, but certainly Lady Emmaline will be.”
The two men leaned forward onto the table again, and Ethan listened attentively, while Lewis laid out his research thus far, and his plan for the future.