Chapter 1

Leticia Crampton couldn’t decide if she was more exhausted or excited. As it turned out, she had recently discovered that she had the tendency to get very seasick when travelling over the ocean.

So, as much as she had loved growing up in America, and as much as she wanted to see it again someday, she also did not want to take the trip across the sea ever again.

Thus, it had been a very long trip to London. Now that she was on dry land again, Leticia found that her legs were very wobbly, and part of her wanted nothing more than to collapse onto a stationary bed for once.

On the other hand, she was in London! She had never seen such a big city before. Even the docks seemed so extensive that she couldn’t catch a glimpse of them all.

Thus, it was that she found there was too much to see to sit back and rest when they got into the carriage that was to take them to their new home.

As she sat opposite her parents, she couldn’t resist sticking her head out of the carriage window slightly so that her brown eyes could get a better view of the cobbled streets of London. Everything about the sights, the scenery, and the air was so new to her.

“Leticia, sit down this instant,” her mother told her sharply.

Leticia sat down with a plop, certain that her face was reflecting the shock she felt at her mother’s stern tone of voice. Yes, she knew that the trip had been even more difficult for her mother, and that Portia had not been keen on the idea of coming to live here, but Leticia’s mother had almost never spoken to her so harshly.

“Mama?” she questioned, curious what she was missing.

Portia sighed and glanced at Leticia’s father as her expression softened somewhat, and then replied, “Staring out of the carriage window like that is very unladylike.”

“But I did it all the time in America,” she protested. “And when I rode in a wagon instead, there were no windows to look out of.”

“I know, but we are not in America any longer,” her mother pointed out with another sigh. “While we lived there, such things didn’t matter so much, but I am afraid that here in London, things are different. Etiquette and all the little rules of society have to be followed.”

Leticia frowned, leaned further back in her seat, smoothed back her white-blond hair, and sighed. Both of her parents had told her that life would be different here, but each time they had said this, it seemed as though it was only to mention another new rule that she would have to follow.

Her father must have noticed her expression, because he told her, “I am sorry that we had to uproot our family. I was always more than happy being the second son of an earl instead of the firstborn, and I can tell you honestly that I heartily wish my older brother and his wife had been able to have a son instead of only two daughters. But, now that he is dead, the Earldom of Brentwood falls to me.”

“I know; I am sorry,” she replied. “I will try to do better.”

“We know that this will be hard for all of us,” Portia stated sympathetically. “But, since we are staying here now, things will be a lot easier if we can try to follow London etiquette.”

Leticia felt a little ashamed of herself. True, she had never met her uncle—and, from what little she had heard, her father had not exactly got along with his older brother anyway—but she knew that she should feel worse about his death.

They had received the news of her uncle’s passing six months ago, the cause being a hunting accident. The mourning period was three months, after which time they had packed up their lives and moved here.

Brentwood County was just outside of London, and all of it was now under her father’s jurisdiction in a way—it was all very confusing to her—and she knew that having to take over all of the responsibility was something that weighed heavily on her father.

So, Leticia did her best to curb her enthusiasm for the rest of the ride in the carriage. She consoled herself with the thought that, since they would be living here now, she would doubtless have time to see everything eventually.

It wasn’t really much of a comfort, but Leticia tried to pretend that it was. This was slightly easier to do once they left London behind on the long trip to Brentwood Manor.

* * *

Having to sit for hours in a carriage almost made Leticia wish to be back on the ship again, but eventually they did arrive at the manor that was to be her new home.

Since they weren’t in town anymore, she decided that it would be harmless to get just a little closer to the window as she took in the sight.

Her parents had told her that Brentwood Manor was large, but she would never have thought it would be this big! She had thought that their two-story mansion in America was spacious, but this manor was three stories tall, and it seemed as though it might well cover twice the ground of their old estate if not more.

When the carriage came to a stop, she opened the door and stepped out almost immediately, only pausing when she heard her mother sigh in exasperation.

“Leticia, please remember to allow the door to be opened for you,” Portia said.

“Sorry, Mother,” she replied with slight embarrassment as she glanced apologetically at the man who looked as though he had been about to open the carriage door.

“I know that you are excited, but please try to have a little patience,” her father added with an amused smile.

If she had not been so busy looking around, Leticia would have pouted and told him that she had been very patient the whole trip. However, she was too focused on using her eyes to bother using her mouth as they walked to the door of the manor.

Once they were there, the butler told them, “The Dowager Countess of Brentwood and her two daughters are in the drawing room, if you wish to see them.”

“Of course,” her father said with a sigh. “Lead us there.”

“Right this way, Lord Brentwood,” the butler replied.

Leticia followed closely behind her father and the butler, feeling a mixture of nervousness and eagerness to meet her aunt and cousins for the first time. She so dearly loved the idea of having cousins, and she hoped that the two girls were close to her age.

Even if they weren’t, she felt more at ease with the idea of having someone familiar that she could rely on to teach her more about London ways.

However, as they neared the drawing room, she did her best to keep her enthusiasm in check. After all, her cousins had just lost their father—a terrible thing that she couldn’t even begin to imagine—and so they would likely not be able to return her excitement.

What she was not expecting was to see her aunt and cousins sitting stiffly in a row on a couch, looking coldly at Leticia and her parents as they entered the room.

She smiled warmly at them, just in case their coldness was actually nervousness, but all she got was a slight flicker of warmth from the younger of her cousins, who seemed to be about twelve years old.

Even that quickly disappeared when the older cousin, who looked like she was fourteen or fifteen, looked over and all but glared at her younger sister for daring to look friendly.

When Leticia saw this, she stood there in shock at their response, barely registering her father going closer to them and saying, “I know that we have never met, but I would like to offer you my condolences. I know that it can’t have been easy lately . . .”

“Thank you for your sympathy,” her aunt replied almost mechanically, and Leticia got the impression that her aunt said that solely because those were the proper words to say.

“I’m Portia, and it is very nice to get to meet you.”

“Yes, and I’m Leticia,” Leticia quickly added, more than glad to follow her mother’s lead in trying to be friendly.

For a moment, it looked as though her aunt wasn’t going to follow suit. Then, after what seemed to be a brief look of disdain, she said, “I am Lady Julianna Brentwood, Dowager Countess of Brentwood.”

Leticia was on the verge of outright asking her why she wasn’t even trying to be friendly, when Julianna turned to her daughters and said, “Come, girls. Now that your uncle Henry—Now that the Earl has arrived, it is time for us to leave. Go and finish your packing.”

“Yes, Mother,” the older girl said as she stood, curtsied towards them, and then led her sister away.

In the meantime, Leticia and her family were still getting over the shock as Henry quickly began to assure his sister-in-law, “You don’t have to leave if you don’t wish to do so. I am not going to kick you out of your home.”

“Brentwood Manor cannot be our home any longer. I don’t think it would be proper,” Julianna replied, still speaking to them disdainfully.

Leticia scrunched up her nose at that, wondering what on earth would possibly make living with family improper as her father replied, “Well then, I know that there are a couple of other manors elsewhere in England that belong to the Brentwood Earldom. You are welcome to take up your residence in one of those, if you prefer.”

“Yes,” Portia quickly added. “And, if you find that you need anything—anything at all—then please let us know. We are family, after all.”

“And, as family,” Henry continued, “I would consider it an honor to look after you and your girls.”

The silence that followed for a moment was awkward all the way around, though Leticia noted that Julianna seemed to be the only one who wasn’t fazed by it.

Instead of looking grateful, or even relieved, the Dowager Countess seemed to be actually offended. With a huff, she stood and coolly informed them, “I am neither in need of your pity or your charity.”

“This isn’t—” Henry began to protest.

However, Julianna cut him off by saying, “Clearly, you have spent too much time in the backwoods of America to remember your culture properly. Having a Dowager Countess of an older brother and the current Countess in the same home is simply not done in England.”

Leticia felt that made no sense, but then again, neither had many of the other rules. However, her aunt was not done speaking yet. “It is your duty to ensure that the title of the Earl of Brentwood stays one that is respected. I don’t care if you are ignorant of the rules of etiquette or if you simply don’t care about being respectable, but I do care about my late husband’s legacy, and I would not dream of doing anything that might disgrace it in any way.”

And, after saying that, Leticia’s aunt strode out of the drawing room, leaving Leticia and her parents standing there in a state of silent shock.

It was her father that broke the silence with a loud sigh and then the words, “Well, I suppose that could have gone better.”

“I had forgotten that Dowagers of any rank are typically treated as . . . well, as second sons often are,” Portia added, pursing her lips at her own oversight.

“What?” Leticia exclaimed. “You mean, this—what just happened here is normal? This is her home; she shouldn’t have to leave it just because we are living here. There is enough room that they could have a whole wing of the manor to themselves, and we could probably avoid even crossing paths! It isn’t right.”

She watched as her parents glanced at each other for a moment before her father turned to her and told her, “I know that it might seem a little . . . unfair, but that is simply the way things are done here. Younger sons may be loved, but in society’s eyes, they are considered extras. That was the main reason why I went to America.”

Recalling what her mother had hinted at, she asked her mother, “So, now that my uncle is dead, my aunt is considered some sort of extra?”

“Well . . . it is more that an earl’s wife is the lady of the house, so to speak, and you simply cannot have two ladies like that in one house.”

“Why not?” Leticia protested.

“Because . . .”

“Because why?” she pressed. She could tell when her parents didn’t really have a good reason for something, and it had never bothered her more than it did now.

“Leticia,” her father cut in. “Things are simply different here, especially near London. You are going to have to get used to the fact that there aren’t always going to be reasons why certain things are the way they are. You are just going to have to learn to accept them.”

Just as she was about to protest, her mother cut her off by saying, “I think that we have all had a very long day. I, for one, am quite tired. I am sure that we will all feel better after we have had some rest. The servants can give us something light to eat in our rooms.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Henry replied.

Leticia nearly pouted, but then reluctantly nodded. She did feel tired, though she doubted that sleep would help her mind make any sense of this situation.

As she was shown to her room, she found herself far too distracted to even be able to enjoy looking around her new home. Then again, the faint sounds of her cousins and aunt leaving only worsened her mood.

Lying in bed a short while later, Leticia struggled with everything the day had brought. She didn’t like these new rules, the coldness from the family that she had never met, or the pressure that she knew her parents now felt.

The idea that this was going to be her life from now on was a hard one to swallow. Even the idea of getting used to everything didn’t seem all that appealing.

Still, she knew that there was no help for it. Perhaps the next day would show her some better things that she would actually like about this new life of hers.

Chapter 2

Neil Thorne felt himself relaxing even before he entered the town’s apothecary shop, his doctor’s bag in his hand. Somehow, stepping into the shop always felt just a little like coming home, though he knew this was quite possibly because of the fact that he spent more time here than he did at his own lodgings.

Then again, it also may have had something to do with the fact that the company here was everything he could wish for, and he knew that he was always welcome to drop by, whether he had business to attend to or not.

As soon as he entered the shop, Ruth looked up from behind the counter, smiling as soon as she saw it was him. He was not surprised to see her, as she spent most of her days in her father’s apothecary shop working as his assistant.

“So, do you have something that you need, or were you just passing by?” she asked him as he approached, leaning onto the counter a little as she did so.

“I just want to restock on a few of the common things that I keep in my bag,” he replied as he reached into his pocket for the list he had written earlier, only to find that it was the wrong pocket.

When he decided to try his other pocket, a frown forming on his face, she giggled. He retaliated by glaring at her and said, “You misplace things as well sometimes, a fact which I am very well acquainted with.”

She took the paper he finally found as she replied, “As your oldest friend in Brentwood, I can laugh at you whenever I please.”

“So, that means that I can do the same?” he retorted.

“No. I grew up in Brentwood, and you didn’t. So, while I am your oldest friend here, you are not mine,” she replied teasingly as she began to look over his list.

He huffed at her but didn’t say anything more as she set about gathering what he needed. As she worked, he let his mind drift a bit.

The sight of her green eyes and brown hair reminded him why she was occasionally taken as his sister, as he had green eyes and black hair. It was not something he minded at all, especially since she felt like a sister to him.

True, there had been a short span of time in the beginning where they thought they might have something more, but they had both agreed that they were more like siblings than anything else. Neil, separated from his family entirely, had been more than happy to have some semblance of a family even if it was not by blood and only consisted of Ruth and her father, Jacob.

This thought reminded him for a moment of his own father, which wasn’t exactly the most pleasant turn for his thoughts to take. His decision to become a doctor was one that had split apart his family—or, at least split him away from the rest of them.

The Thorne family, though having no titles or lands of their own had a significant business in London. It was large and prosperous enough to involve his father, his grandfather, both of his uncles, and even an older cousin.

Neil’s father intended on having both of his sons join in on the family business, especially Neil, being the older of the two. So, when Neil had stated his intention of becoming a doctor instead, his father had been furious with him.

Though he had expected disappointment, what he had not expected was for his father to disown him if he persisted in following such a profession.

This was what had led to Neil leaving home and working odd jobs in order to pay his own way through school. When he had graduated, he had looked for a position for a while, finally finding one in Brentwood.

The previous doctor for the area had wanted to retire, but had insisted that only the right man would take his place. Neil had seemingly made a good impression, so two years ago, he took over, and the elderly doctor left to go live with some of his children.

Though most of the time Neil could forget a little, there were some moments when he recalled the fact that he had not spoken to any of his family since he had left home. He used to write letters at first, but he gave up after years of getting no reply, and that still hurt sometimes.

“Well, don’t you just look as though you are thinking the most cheerful thoughts,” Neil heard a voice sarcastically say.

He was smiling before he was even able to pinpoint where Jacob was, telling the older man, “Of course, I am always cheerful.”

Jacob scoffed and came closer while asking, “So, is Ruth helping you with something, or have you just been standing there waiting for one of us to come up front? You’ve come to the back plenty of times before, so I hope it wasn’t the latter.”

Neil glanced to the place he had last seen Ruth, only now realizing that she must have left to get something that was not in the room. “Ruth is getting the things on my list.”

“Correction, I have finished getting everything on your list,” Ruth said with a smile as she came from around the corner with what seemed to be a small packet of the last item in her hand.

“Thank you,” he told her as he made sure to brush away the last of his melancholy thoughts.

He then opened his bag and laid out everything, Ruth helping him pack the new items in their place. Once that was done, he picked up his bag and headed for the door with a wave of farewell.

“Oh, wait a moment,” Ruth said, causing him to pause. “I wanted to invite you over for supper this evening, if you are free, which I know that you are.”

“I suppose that I could drop by for a while,” he told her with a smile. “That is, assuming no one has an emergency and needs me, of course.”

“Of course, but don’t think for one moment that I am ignorant of the fact that you never get a proper home-cooked meal unless I am the one cooking it,” she pointed out.

“I cook some,” he protested weakly.

Ruth stared at him as she told him, “You can throw a few things together adequately, I will grant you that, but doing simple things is a far cry from cooking.”

Neil tried to come up with a retort, quickly finding that he was unable to do so. With a huff, he told her with only a little bit of a dramatic tone, “Thank you for putting up with this poor, starving doctor by feeding me a home-cooked meal tonight.”

She swatted at him as he then walked out of the shop and onto the sidewalk. Just as he was letting his eyes adjust to the change in lighting, he heard a commotion coming from down the street.

Without a second thought, his eyes searched that area to determine what was happening as his feet quickly carried him in the direction of a small crowd. Unfortunately, he knew that signs of a commotion and a crowd almost always meant that his services were required.

Fortunately, most people of the town were familiar with what he looked like after two years of residence, so they made way for him as he approached.

“What happened?” he asked the first man to look directly at him.

“I don’t know,” the man replied. “I didn’t see what happened. I only know that a young boy was hurt and something about a carriage rushing by.”

Neil felt his gut clench at that. He couldn’t count how many close calls had come of children running across the road as a carriage was going past, and how severe the injuries could be even when it was an adult.

Pushing past the last few people that were in his way, his eyes instantly fixed on a boy that looked to be about six or seven, who was being held by a young woman that was most likely his mother.

First, Neil’s eyes took in the sight of blood, which was a bad sign. Then, he noted that the boy was sobbing and crying, which was actually a good thing in his opinion, as this meant there was no difficulty breathing. The lack of outright screaming also made it possible that he wasn’t in too much pain—another good sign.

It only took a fraction of a second to note all of this, and then he was kneeling by the young woman’s side and taking a closer look at the boy.

“I am a doctor. May I take a look at him?” he asked, carefully refraining from calling the boy her son when she might just as likely be an older sister or some other relation.

He wasn’t too surprised to see her purse her lips, her watery eyes overflowing a little as she finally told him, “But I—we don’t have any money. I couldn’t—My husband and I—”

“You have no need to worry about that at all,” he quickly assured her with a compassionate smile. “You don’t have to pay me anything if you cannot afford to do so.”

“Thank you,” she replied as she looked to be on the verge of sobbing with relief.

As she then shifted herself so that the boy in her arms was more visible, Neil was able to see better that most of the blood was coming from a gash on the boy’s head—but head wounds, even minor ones, always tended to bleed quite a bit. Other than that, there was a bit of dirt, but the only other injury seemed to be a gash on the leg.

“Can you tell me what happened?” he asked as he gently put his hands on the boy to try to feel for any other injuries or broken bones.

“He—I just turned around for a second, and when I turned back around, Tim was running across the street after that stray dog he had had his eyes on all morning. But he—he slipped on his way across the street and fell, and then the carriage came by and nearly hit him,” the young mother told him, barely refraining from sobbing as she cut herself off at the end.

Neil was relieved to hear that the boy—Tim, she had said his name was—hadn’t actually gotten hit by the carriage. He rose to his feet, and then bent over and held out his arms for her to hand him her son as he told her, “If it is alright with you, my practice is just a little past the Miller’s apothecary shop, and I can carry him there where it will be easier to rinse him off a bit so that I can get a better look at these gashes.”

She hesitated for only a moment before nodding and handing Tim to him. As they walked away, the crowd that had gathered started to disperse, and maybe Neil helped this along a little by glaring at the ones who were simply interested in more fodder for their gossiping.

As they passed the apothecary shop, he saw Ruth and Jacob in the doorway looking on, and he sent them a small smile to let them know that he didn’t think the injuries to be too serious.

He saw the relief on both of their faces at that, reminding him of the kindness of his friends. Neil had no doubt that, if he found the boy in need of anything from the apothecary shop, the Millers would be sure to give it to Tim’s mother free of charge.

Just a little while later, as he was setting Tim down on the examination table and reaching for the pitcher of water and the brown towels he used to clean up blood in his office, Tim’s mother stayed by his side as she did her best to calm her son down with general words of comfort that he was going to be alright.

Neil decided to attend to the gash on the head first, as that was what was bleeding the most freely, wincing in sympathy when he noted that he would have to apply a few stitches.

After wrapping up the gash on his leg, and telling Tim’s mother to hold pressure there, Neil got the needle and thread ready, mentally debating the best way to keep a young boy still for something that would doubtless hurt.

Fortunately, the young mother caught sight of the needle and thread and took over by telling Tim, “Close your eyes now, Tim, so that the nice doctor can . . . look better at your head and clean it out without anything getting in your eyes. It’s going to hurt, but you just keep your eyes closed and stay still, do you hear?”

Tim sniffled, still crying, but nodded a little and closed his eyes, for which Neil gave the mother a grateful look as he added, “And feel free to squeeze your mother’s hand when it hurts. I will let you know when I am done so that you can open your eyes.”

Tim didn’t really stay perfectly still, but it was close enough for Neil to do what he needed to, and then he went to look at Tim’s knee. Though stitches were not needed there, it was a rather nasty looking scrape, and Tim started sobbing again as Neil carefully cleaned all of the dirt out of it and applied some witch hazel.

The same treatment was given to the other smaller scrapes on Tim’s hands, and then Neil applied some ointment to the knee and bandaged it up.

Looking Tim over once more, just to be sure that he hadn’t missed anything, Neil then took a step back and said, “Well, I think that is all. You can take him home now, but keep an eye out for any dizziness, nausea, or anything like that.”

“Thank you so much,” the young woman replied, tears of gratitude in her eyes as she picked up her son in her arms. “My husband and I will try to pay you back as soon as we can. We don’t really have much but—”

“Don’t worry about that,” Neil told her once more.

“We don’t accept charity,” she replied firmly. “What do we owe you?”

Tilting his head to the side, Neil only had to think for a moment before he replied, “To be perfectly honest, if you wanted to pay me by making a meal or two, that would be perfect. I am a bachelor and not much of a cook. But we can talk more about that another time.”

He began to usher her out before she could insist on paying him with money, telling her, “Come back here again with him in a few days if you can, so that I can check the wounds for any signs of infection, and try to keep them clean in the meantime—that part might be a bit difficult when he starts running around again, but just do your best.”

“I will,” she replied as she left.

Neil watched them for a moment, feeling quite satisfied as he then turned to clean up. He never knew when someone else might have an accident of some kind, so he always did his best to keep everything as clean as possible for whatever emergency he might face next.

As he worked, his mind kept drifting to the boy and his mother. This was why he had become a doctor, and he didn’t regret his choice at all.

How could he regret seeing the relief, the hope, and the gratitude that was proof he was doing good? He couldn’t.

Maybe he would never get to see his family again, but this life was worth it. The only thing that he would change was perhaps finding someone to share it with.

Chapter 3

As Leticia sat down in the drawing room with her mother, she wanted nothing more than to recline against the back of the sofa to rest her aching muscles. She knew better than to do that, however, especially with her mother sitting beside her.

This last week of living at the manor had required getting used to quite a few adjustments, and so far, she wasn’t feeling appreciative of any of them.

Her mother was suddenly very interested in making sure that her posture was as perfect as possible—though Portia used the word “proper,” Leticia felt that it was expected to be perfect.

In addition, she had been assigned a lady’s maid, which she hated and felt to be an invasion of her privacy. True, Mary was very quiet and rarely spoke, but Leticia was already starting to feel that she would prefer that Mary speak more instead of just standing there.

Unfortunately, the first time Leticia had tried to engage the maid in conversation, her mother had scolded her for doing so. She had tried again when her mother wasn’t there, but with no success.

On top of all of that, Leticia’s mother had been tutoring her in what she referred to as the ways of the ton. Most of what was said made almost no sense to Leticia, who had a hard time remembering the details.

Though it felt as though she wasn’t making any progress, Leticia assumed that she was doing well enough with her lessons if her mother deemed her ready to go out to tea as soon as the carriage was ready, which was why they were waiting in the drawing room now.

Leticia nearly winced when her mother turned slightly to face her better, almost certain that she was going to hear either a remark about her posture or a reminder of some little rule that she needed to be sure to follow once they got to Lady Vivian’s tea party.

Instead, her mother told her, “By the way, you are doing well enough at adjusting for me to tell you this now. Your father and I intend for you to make your debut into London society this season.”

Leticia looked over in surprise for a moment as she processed these words, finally replying, “But, you have told me so many stories about your own debut. It sounds as though it takes quite a lot of planning and preparations. And then doesn’t that . . .”

She hesitated before finally deciding to finish the thought, “Doesn’t that make me eligible for marriage? We just got here, and I don’t really know anyone yet, much less have any gentleman that I like. And, besides, wouldn’t it be better if I am . . . well, if I am better at all of these rules first?”

“Yes, it would be,” Portia admitted reluctantly.

Leticia nearly let out a sigh of relief at that, quickly asking, “So, we can put it off until next year?”

She really hoped that they could put it off for two years, but one year would provide her at least a little time. Unfortunately, this hope started to shatter when her mother shook her head.

“I am afraid not, dear.”

“Why not? Didn’t you just admit that it would be better?”

“I did, and it would be. But you are already twenty years of age. Next year, you will be twenty-one, and that is deemed to be spinster age in the ton. That is why waiting is simply not an option if you want to make a good impression.”

“Surely it is understandable considering that we just got to England,” Leticia protested.

“It is understandable that you haven’t had your debut yet, yes. But it won’t be understandable if you don’t have it as soon as you possibly can, which is this season,” her mother explained.

“How much time do we even have to get everything ready? You prepared for yours for months,” Leticia questioned, still hoping that she could get out of it.

She felt a flicker of hope as her mother pursed her lips at that, telling her, “We have about two weeks to get everything ready.”

“Two weeks!”

“Leticia, keep your voice at a respectable level. I am sitting right by you, so there is no need to raise your voice,” Portia scolded.

Before Leticia could come up with anything to say in reply to her mother, the butler came into the room and announced that their carriage was ready.

Leticia followed her mother in silence to the carriage, and she stayed silent as they traveled to the smaller manor where they were attending tea.

Her father had particularly wanted them to attend, as Lord Ambrose Spencer was an old friend of Henry’s from when they both went to Eton as young men, and the tea party was being held by Lady Vivian Spencer, his wife.

Besides giving them a perfect opportunity to get to know some of the other people in Brentwood, the two men had hoped that their families would get along, especially as Lord Ambrose and Lady Vivian had a daughter just a little younger than Leticia, whose name was Celeste.

Leticia had this same hope, and she did her best to focus on that instead of worrying about the future. She would focus on this tea party and on hopefully making friends, and then she would think more on this unwelcome information later. She just hoped that the day wouldn’t get any worse . . .

* * *

It wasn’t too much longer before they arrived at their destination. Leticia remembered to wait for the carriage door to be opened for her this time, feeling so stiff that it hurt as she did her best to make sure that her posture was perfect.

“Now, remember, Leticia, this is the first event that we are attending since we arrived. All eyes are going to be on us, dear, to see what we are like, so be on your best behavior,” her mother told her as they got out of the carriage.

“I thought that garden tea parties were supposed to be somewhat casual,” Leticia replied without looking at her mother, mentally making sure that she was smiling just the right amount as she went over what her mother had told her about how to properly introduce herself.

She much preferred the casual ways of America, where it hadn’t been offensive for her to go up to a stranger and give them her name.

“They are, but that is beside the point,” her mother replied.

Leticia did not have any time at all before they encountered the other guests. She was able to make it through all of the introductions with what she hoped was flawless etiquette, and she was eventually seated between her mother and Lady Vivian.

She found the other lady to be perfectly polite, though Leticia couldn’t help but feel that some of the warmth Vivian showed was more forced than natural. Then again, the perfectly seamless appearance of the lady’s blonde hair and blue eyes did make her seem a little intimidating.

Still, it was better than being glared at by her own cousins, and Vivian’s blond-haired green-eyed daughter, though just as perfect looking, was at least a little more approachable and seemed to be polite as well.

Though Leticia was glad to find friendly faces, she was also keenly aware that most of those faces kept looking at her as though expecting her to make a mistake. This had the obvious effect of making her feel very self-conscious, which was not helped by the fact that she had very little interest in the conversation—not that she was even familiar with some of the terms of fashion and specific shops that the other ladies were comparing the virtues of.

She was very conscious of everything, including the fact that the teacakes were crumbly. Supposedly, eating the small things all in one bite wasn’t ladylike, but how was she supposed to take a bite out of them without getting crumbs everywhere?

This tea party was supposed to be enjoyable, but she was far too stressed to be able to enjoy it. Then, when glancing around the room, she saw a housemaid carrying a tea tray that seemed far too heavy for her.

Leticia knew that the poor girl was headed to her table, and it was quite clear that she was struggling with it. Biting her lip for a fraction of a second—before she remembered that she was not supposed to do that—Leticia tried to remember if her mother had told her anything about whose job it was to help in such a situation.

But, when she saw the maid almost stumble for a moment, she couldn’t resist the impulse to get up and go over to help her. “Here, perhaps I can help a little?” she asked as she reached out her hands to steady the tray.

She was not surprised that the maid looked up at her with surprise. What was surprising was that there was no relief whatsoever in the girl’s expression. Instead, there was something that looked akin to horror.

“I can manage just fine,” the maid insisted, her wide eyes glancing to a point behind Leticia.

Though she was tempted to turn around to look at whatever had caught the maid’s attention, Leticia was more focused on offering her help than anything else.

“But it really didn’t look like you have the strength to carry a tray that is loaded down like this,” she replied with a frown, refusing to budge.

“No, I—” the girl started to refuse again, pulling the tray back and away from Leticia as she did so.

Unfortunately, in pulling it back, the tray tipped to the side slightly. Leticia quickly reached for that side to correct the mistake, but the maid seemed to do the same thing, causing the tray to tip in the other direction.

Neither of them had been able to catch it at that point, and a second later the tray could be heard crashing to the floor in spite of their best efforts to prevent it.

Once the sounds died, Leticia found herself frozen. She knew without looking that everyone’s eyes were on her, and she also knew that she had probably broken at least one rule—which one, she didn’t know, but she knew that there had to at least be some rule against tipping over a tray of teacakes in your host’s home, even accidentally.

Deciding that her mother was the safest option when it came to people to look at, she was not surprised to see the stern look on her face. She was, however, grateful that her mother gave her a clue as to what she should do by motioning for her to come back to her seat.

She sat down, her eyes on her lap as she did so, almost afraid to look at anyone’s face. However, knowing that she would have to look up eventually, she decided that Vivian and Celeste were perhaps the two best people to look at.

Even knowing that there would be some level of censure on their faces, she still nearly winced when she saw Vivian’s glare and Celeste’s disdain. However, a second glance showed her that Vivian was not glaring at her.

A slight turn of her head showed her that the lady was looking at the maid, who was standing nearby fidgeting and looking at her feet as she just now started to apologize, “I am sorry, Lady Vivian. It won’t happen again, I—”

“I am sure that it won’t happen again,” Vivian told her harshly. “Really, trying to gain sympathy for yourself by dramatically struggling with a tray like that is hardly a desirable trait in a servant.”

Leticia gasped at that, but the maid simply stood there as the lady continued, “After all, if you cannot follow simple tasks, then I might decide that I have no use for you. Now, see to it that we get new teacakes and that the mess is cleaned up, and try not to distract from my tea party while you do so.”

Somehow, seeing the maid be scolded for what she knew was partially her fault felt worse than it would have if the scolding had been directed at her. That, combined with the strange way some of the other guests were looking at her, made her cheeks flush with embarrassment.

She was so glad that the tea was nearly over, as she was certain that her embarrassment stayed evident on her cheeks for the whole rest of their time there.

She was only able to breathe a sigh of relief once she and her mother were in their carriage and heading back to the manor—Leticia felt that it was far too soon to even begin to think of Brentwood Manor as home yet.

However, she felt that her relief was ill-timed. No sooner had they started moving, than her mother turned to her and sharply said, “Leticia, I could barely believe my eyes when you stood like that during the tea party and went over to help that maid!”

“I’m sorry, I—”

“Under no circumstances are you to interfere with the work of servants, especially not to help them. If they are truly in need of help, they are perfectly capable of calling over another servant to help them. You are above their station; they work with their hands, and you, as a lady, are not supposed to do such things.”

Feeling that her mother was going overboard in her censure, she protested, “But that is not—”

“I don’t want to hear it,” her mother cut her off by saying. “This is our life now, and I know that I should have been stricter on these things before, so this is partially my fault, and I am sorry for it. But here in London, we don’t associate with the servants and staff. They have their roles, and we have ours.”

Leticia may have decided not to say anything more, but this didn’t stop her from thinking. She remembered with longing how she had been well acquainted with nearly every member of the staff of their manor in America, and how one or two of her friends were even of the lower class.

Above all, she wished that she could go back home. The only thing that made her feel a little better was the hope that she could make friends here and that eventually she would get used to it.

Chapter 4

Neil was glad that there were no emergencies as the day went on. Though it could get somewhat tedious and boring dealing with the usual stomachaches, sprains, scrapes, and colds, he had no desire to wish injury on anyone just so he could have some excitement.

He was especially glad that no one dropped by when it was time for him to head over to the Millers’ house for the evening meal, as he was quite looking forward to whatever Ruth had cooked.

He was able to smell the food even before he opened the door of their modest cottage on the outskirts of the town. When Jacob opened the door for him to enter, the increase of the delicious smell was enough to make his stomach grumble audibly.

Jacob laughed at that, motioning for him to come inside, telling Neil, “Come on, before your stomach decides to eat itself.”

“Well, you certainly took your time about inviting me in,” Neil retorted teasingly, knowing that he had barely been waiting at the door for a couple of seconds.

Jacob scoffed at that but didn’t reply as he led the way to the table. Once they were there, Ruth looked up with a smile as she set down the basket of dinner rolls that Neil knew she had probably made earlier that day.

Before he could tell her how good the food looked, she said, “I heard about what happened earlier with the boy. That was very nice of you to waive your fee like that, but I do think that you do such things perhaps just a little too often.”

“Oh, poppycock,” Jacob cut in as they began to take their seats. “At least Neil isn’t giving that Jamison family any slack. Though, with that family’s lack of desire to work, no one around here is likely to get paid what they are due.”

Then Jacob turned to Neil and continued, “At least the Forester family—that is Tim’s last name, the boy you helped earlier—are hardworking folks that are genuinely simply struggling to make ends meet. Thomas, Tim’s father, came into the shop a few days ago for an ointment to put on some blisters.”

“Really?” Neil asked, instantly interested. “He didn’t come to see me about it. What type of blisters? Was it a burn?”

“No, none of that. I may not be a doctor, but I can recognize the type of blisters a man gets when he works hard with his hands. If I thought for a moment that it could have been any other type of blister, trust me when I say that I would have insisted Thomas go to see you.”

“I know you would have,” Neil replied as he began to eat, realizing that he had instantly gone into doctor mode.

“Anyway, as I was saying . . . I think that what you did for the Forester family was very kind,” Jacob said.

Neil was slightly uncomfortable at the direct praise. Fortunately, his friends quickly changed the subject and started talking about some of the herbs that they were growing.

He was glad that his friends had learned not to tease him about what most assumed was simply shyness. The fact was that his father had always done his best to ensure that both Neil and his brother were put on pedestals, making sure that they would do better than any other boys.

It was because of this that Neil found he hated being praised profusely by anyone. Though his friends still did give him the occasional compliment, he was glad that they also knew to stop when he became uncomfortable.

So, he had no problem enjoying the dinner of chicken, roasted vegetables, rolls, and salad, followed by pudding for dessert. And if Ruth happened to silently laugh at him a little for taking seconds of everything, he pretended not to notice.

Though he knew that he didn’t really belong to the Miller family, he would gladly join them for their meals more often. Even knowing that they thought of him as family was not enough to give him that right, however. At least, that was how he felt about it.

So, in times like now, when he did allow himself to join them for a meal, Neil always did his best to enjoy it as much as he could—both the food as well as the company.

Like other times, he hoped that he would get to have this for himself someday. Perhaps he would eventually meet a young woman, fall in love, and have a home like this to return to every day.

Though Neil knew that he might end up a bachelor, the thought of a family like this was a pleasant one to consider every now and then.

* * *

Leticia had been silent the rest of the evening, and as she prepared for bed, or, rather, as her lady’s maid prepared her for bed, since apparently, she wasn’t supposed to undress herself, even though she was perfectly capable of doing so.

As she lay there in bed though, she found that she simply couldn’t go to sleep. Her mind was too consumed with thoughts of what had transpired at the tea party earlier that afternoon.

She really hoped that the poor maid hadn’t gotten fired because of it. The idea of that even being a possibility put a sour feeling in Leticia’s stomach.

It had felt wrong that no one had risen to help the poor girl, but then it had just gone from wrong to worse. And she was supposed to just sit there? How was she supposed to get used to this? She didn’t even want to get used to human beings being treated badly.

With a sigh, Leticia decided that she wasn’t going to be able to sleep. She paused for a moment at her door, though, wondering what rules she was going to be breaking by leaving her room in the middle of the night to go to the kitchen for some tea or a snack of some kind.

With a shrug of her shoulders, she decided that she didn’t really care. Still, she did grab herself a shawl before heading out of her room, both because the air of the manor could get cool as well as the fact that she knew she wasn’t supposed to be seen in just her night garments.

As she walked down to the kitchen, she amused herself by thinking about what possible rules she might be breaking. First of all, there simply had to be some rule or another against her wandering the halls at night.

Then again, she was probably supposed to wake up her lady’s maid to fetch a cup of tea instead of getting one herself. Or, maybe it was the butler or one of the other staff that was supposed to do that? She didn’t know.

Leticia wondered if it was against a rule to make herself a cup of tea as well, deciding that it probably was. It would likely also be wrong of her should she decide to wash the cup herself when she was done with it so she could put it back where she found it.

Somehow these thoughts were both amusing and depressing to her at the same time. But she did her best to shake off her melancholy as she neared the kitchen, preparing to focus on finding where the teapot and everything else was.

However, as she reached the door to the kitchen, she was surprised to see that there was light coming into the hall from under the door.

Leticia paused to decide if she truly wanted to be around anyone else at the moment, especially when the faint sound of humming reached her ears and assured her that there was at least one person already in the kitchen.

She didn’t want to disturb anyone who was going about their work, but, at the same time, this other person might be someone she hadn’t met yet who she could talk to.

After getting used to Mary hovering around, she was beginning to feel that the chances of any of the servants being willing to have a conversation with her were slim to none, but she couldn’t help but hope she would be proven wrong.

So, mentally deciding that she would take her tea to her room if it was too awkward, Leticia pushed open the door and stepped into the kitchen.

There was only one person in the kitchen, a young woman who seemed around Leticia’s own age, or a little younger, and who seemed to be kneading some dough while she hummed.

Leticia was rather sad when the other girl caught sight of her with a gasp and quickly stopped what she was doing to curtsy while saying, “My lady, can I help you with anything? My apologies for not hearing you come in.”

She had to refrain from sighing and put a fake smile on her face as she replied, “Oh, no, that is alright. I was just . . . I couldn’t sleep, so I thought that I would have a cup of tea.”

“Of course, my lady,” the girl replied, instantly going over and getting out the teapot, putting water in it, and setting it on the stove before stoking up the fire a little to heat the water faster.

Still feeling like sighing, Leticia looked around for a place to sit, deciding that she would stay only long enough to make her tea. Just as she sat down at what seemed to be the table where the servants ate on, the other girl came back over to her with another curtsy.

“Is there anything else that I can do for you, my lady? The water hopefully won’t take too long to come to a boil. I put it on the hottest spot.”

Deciding that she might as well try to show that she was friendly, Leticia replied, “You could tell me your name . . .”

There was a flicker of surprise before the servant replied, “My name is Katherine, my lady, but most people call me Kitty.”

“Well, it is nice to meet you, Kitty,” Leticia said. “I am pretty sure that you know who I am already but, please, don’t let me keep you from whatever you were doing before I got here.”

“Of course, my lady, and if you need me for anything else—”

“Oh, please stop it with the ‘my lady.’ I hear quite enough of that all day long,” Leticia interrupted exasperatedly.

“What am I to call you then?” Kitty asked, meeting her eyes for the first time.

Leticia saw the curiosity in those eyes, as well as what seemed to be almost a hint of mischief. Before she could change her mind or think too much about what her mother would say, she replied, “I would much rather be called by my Christian name, Leticia.”

Kitty smiled, going back to kneading as she almost playfully pointed out, “Why, that is hardly proper, Lady Leticia.”

“Just Leticia, thank you very much,” Leticia corrected, feeling happy when that got a giggle out of the other girl, who seemed to relax a bit more.

“So, I take it that it was not an exaggeration when I heard your afternoon tea at the Spencers’ did not exactly go well?”

“How did you even know about that?” Leticia asked in shock.

“You would be surprised how fast word can travel,” Kitty told her with a shrug as she took the dough out of the bowl and put it on the counter with more flour.

“Well, I had heard that, but being provided with proof is another thing entirely.”

“I suppose, but I guess that I am just used to it.”

Leticia did nothing to hide her groan, asking, “And are you also used to acting—well, I suppose working in the kitchen you wouldn’t have to act like a . . . like a snob, but you probably are used to other people acting like brats. But, honestly, what was so wrong about me trying to help?!”

Kitty giggled a little at that. “I suppose that I am used to it some, but you do realize that being used to it doesn’t necessarily mean a person has to like it, right? The way I see it, every class of person has a certain way that they are supposed to act, even mine.”

“But yours doesn’t seem to have so many rules,” Leticia grumbled.

“Oh, of course we do. Mostly there are rules as to how we work, and that we must always be polite to those of higher classes . . . that sort of stuff. Your class does have more rules, but my class has more manual labor. So, I figure that it evens itself out nicely.”

“Well, I would rather have some manual labor sometimes,” Leticia admitted. “I don’t mind working at all; at least work makes sense!”

“Some of my class would gladly deal with the extra rules in order to not have to work so hard, and I am sure that there are others of your class that feel the same way you do.”

“You know, there really should be a way for people to switch to the class they would rather be in,” Leticia noted thoughtfully.

“I think that, if it was even possible, many people would be switching back once they realized that the other class wasn’t all they thought it would be,” Kitty pointed out.

“True,” Leticia replied with a smile.

She only now realized how thoroughly she had vented her feelings to a person she had just met. Much to her surprise, she found that she wasn’t embarrassed at all. In fact, the strong desire for a friend she had felt since coming to London came to the forefront of her mind as she watched Kitty separate the dough into two loaf pans.

She was tempted to outright ask if they could be friends, but she didn’t want to spoil anything. Instead, she asked, “So, how long have you been working in the kitchen here at the manor?”

“Oh, well, actually, I don’t really work in the kitchen,” Kitty replied almost sheepishly. “I am a housemaid here, but my mother, Beth, is the cook, so sometimes I help her out, like I am doing now. But I started as a maid when I was fifteen, so just over three years now.”

“Well, that is sweet of you.”

“Can I ask you a question now?”

“Of course.”

“Have you always lived in America? What is it like there?” Kitty asked, eyes alight with curiosity.

Leticia was nearly beaming as she replied, “Yes, I have always lived there, until now, that is.”

Then she gladly launched into telling Kitty all about how different certain things were in America. The sound of the teapot whistling was the only thing that reminded them of the reason why Leticia was down in the kitchen in the first place.

With very little prompting, Kitty gladly agreed to have a cup of tea as well, sitting across from Leticia at the table while they had their tea as well as some shortbread.

Leticia was quite regretful when her cup of tea was empty and most of the shortbread had been eaten, getting up with a sigh to go back to her room.

“You should come back to the kitchen sometime,” Kitty told her as she left. “I am here most evenings helping out.”

“I would like that,” she replied, impulsively giving the other girl a hug. “Goodnight, Kitty.”

“Goodnight.”

As Leticia climbed back in her bed moments later, it was with a smile on her face. Certainly, she knew that her mother likely wouldn’t approve, but even that couldn’t spoil her pleasure at making her first real friend in London.

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