London, Mayfair, 1808, The Duke of Marsh’s Ball
The young Lady Sarah Manning fanned herself as she watched the Duke of Marsh make his rounds at the ball. He was always such the illustrious host as he spoke to everyone. He had to make sure that his handsome face was seen by all in attendance.
The Duke looked in her direction and their eyes met. Sarah blushed as she continued to fan herself when the Duke gave her a smile and a nod. Once she gave a nod of her own, she swallowed as he came near to her. His eye caught hers across the crowded ballroom, and she had hoped and prayed that he would come and speak to her on this night, or even ask her to dance. He had been paying her marked attention throughout the Season, and Sarah knew that her mother, Lady Elizabeth Manning, The Countess of Elspeth, was desperate for her daughter to get her hands on a Duke and elevate their status more.
As the Earl of Elspeth’s daughter, Sarah never had to worry about status, but she knew just how prized a duke was. And James Dunning, the Duke of Marsh, was the handsomest one in all the ton. Every eligible young woman craved for his eye to turn to them.
Single, wealthy, and charming, the duke had asked Sarah to dance five times in the last two weeks. She hoped that a proposal was forthcoming for he was everything she could have ever wished for in a husband. Besides his looks and charm, he was a good conversationalist and was always eager to listen, a great dancer, and he had a voice that left a woman flustered. This was one of the last balls of the Season, and now that many of her friends had already been paired off, Sarah wanted desperately for her turn to finally happen. Her mother had scolded her long enough to be as perfect as possible throughout the Season and now, she believed it would all come to fruition.
His blue eyes were on her as he drew nearer. There was a slight smile on his lips. It was the smile that made every woman, including Sarah, slightly weak at the knees. Sarah had positioned herself at the edge of the dance floor so that she was partially hidden by a plant but also removed from the crowd a bit. She didn’t want to risk the man not seeing her. A wide smile crossed his face when he finally stood in front of her.
“Lady Sarah,” he said, grabbing her gloved hand and bowing low over it. “How lovely to see you again.” His eyes raked down her face and over her form, giving Sarah a little flush of pleasure.
His regard is evident in every look, she thought. She worried for a moment that this would cause an issue if her mother had been there, but it did not seem to cause any raised eyebrows from people standing around them.
“How beautiful you look this evening. What delicate lace. What lovely pearls.” A fingertip reached out to touch one of the pearls around her neck for the briefest of moments, and Sarah shivered, knowing just how forward it was of him to do such a thing in a busy place, but she was confident in his affection.
We will be married soon, she said to herself as she tried to quell her nerves. There will be a courtship.
“And you, Your Grace, have outdone yourself with this ball. It is the most decorated and lavish of the entire Season.” He grinned and looked around him at the lit chandeliers, the full to bursting food tables, the well-dressed servants passing around lemonade and champagne to the guests. And each guest was dressed better than the last. It was the summer months now, and so the room was warm, but the garden doors were open, allowing some air and the movement of a cool breeze to run through the ballroom, cooling her skin.
“And that is what is so wonderful about you, Lady Sarah. You are always full of compliments to soothe a man’s ego, just when he needs it.” His voice had lowered, and his eyes were watching her intently. Sarah licked her lips, feeling a little flutter of nervous anticipation under his gaze.
“How kind of you to say, Your Grace, but I am only speaking the truth. I know how many people enjoy coming to your event at the end of the Season.” She blushed furiously when he grabbed her hand again and placed it on his arm.
“My dear Lady, would you do me the honor of accompanying me to the balcony?” he said in a low voice, promising many things.
Sarah’s heart beat furiously. “Of course, just let me inform my mother and…”
“Oh, there is no need my dear. It will only be a few moments. I am sure your chaperon will not notice your absence for a few mere moments. You trust me do you not, my dear?” the Duke said. His voice made Sarah at ease and she believed in his confidence. In her mind that could mean only one thing.
Was the duke planning to finally propose? Had he asked her father for her hand and was now bringing the news to her before telling the public? Her mother would know of this as well, which explained the fussing she had done earlier when they’d prepared for the ball. Sarah would be a duchess, married to the handsomest man in all the ton, and her mother would at least be appeased. Perhaps Sarah could finally get some peace in her life. There were many women whose eye he’d caught. Many gossiping tales of almost proposals but nothing came from them. Sarah had heard that some women were so devastated by not receiving a proposal from the Duke that they left the city in embarrassment for a while. This made Sarah wonder if she could truly be so lucky as to finally land a proposal from the Duke.
“Of course,” she said, following him through the thick crowd to the balcony doors. She took a breath, feeling like she was on the precipice of a new, fresh adventure. Her whole life could change in a moment. As soon as they were outside in the cooling breeze, he pulled her to the far end of the balcony where it was covered in shadow. Only a flicker of lamplight shone on their faces.
“Your Grace,” she said, clearing her throat. “There is no need to go so far away here. We should not cause a scandal.” Her words faded to soft whispers when he looked down at her with eyes that made a woman melt. He had golden brown wavy hair and the line of a strong jaw. Everything about him was masculine, desirable, and his voice sent a tingle down her spine.
She felt his hands on her waist, and she gasped as he pulled her close, leaning down to whisper in her ear. “You have driven me to madness, Lady Sarah, for your beauty is unmatched. I wonder if you might do me the honor of a kiss? I have been waiting for this for so long. Ever since I laid eyes upon you at the first ball of the Season. Please, do not refuse me. You shall wound a desperate man.”
“A kiss?” she asked in a wavering tone. He pulled back slightly from where he had whispered in his ear until his mouth was inches from hers. She had never been kissed before. There had been a few suitors over her first Season, but none of them had captured her interest as much as the duke. If she was being honest, then she knew that he was the only one she wanted to receive a kiss from.
“I suppose,” she said breathlessly, trusting in the fact that he cared for her, that he would propose soon after, and make her the happiest woman in the world.
Grinning, he leaned in and kissed her. She felt sensations throughout her body, but it only lasted for a few seconds before they both heard a gasp next to them. Sarah jumped back to see who was there, however, the duke was not so quick. Even though he’d stopped kissing her and turned his head, his hand was still firmly on her waist.
Then he means to propose, Sarah thought happily. The person in question who was now staring at them was Lady Dawkins, the greatest gossip in all of London. The short, older woman put a hand to her mouth. “Oh, dear me, Your Grace, you must forgive me. I was looking for my niece out here. I do not mean to intrude.”
Sarah frowned. The woman didn’t look eager to move away from them, nor did Sarah believe that she’d been looking for her niece, but when the duke released Sarah and straightened up, Lady Dawkins tittered away. Sarah sighed when she heard the woman stifling a laugh as she left. Now the whole ballroom would know about them, and her mother would not be happy, but at least there would be a proposal.
She turned to face him, with expectation in her eyes. “Your Grace?” she asked. “Lady Dawkins is a frightful gossip. Everyone in the ballroom will know what we have been doing here.”
The duke wasn’t looking at her, but instead was straightening his waistcoat. “So she will. But I pay no mind to gossips. They will soon be on to the next thing. A good night to you, Lady Sarah.” He finally spared her a glance and then with a quick nod, left Sarah behind in the shadows.
It took her a few seconds for her to understand what happened, but when she did, she leaned back against the cold stone wall and put a hand to her chest. Her heart was screaming in pain. He had gone. He’d left her. Lady Dawkins had seen them kiss, and now, the world would know.
“But I thought,” she sputtered to herself, and then shook her head, chastising herself for her foolishness. A cold dread spread like ink through her belly. Dear God, what would they say? What would my mother do when she finds out?
Feeling dizzy, Sarah pushed away from the wall and slowly walked out of the alcove.
I will not faint. I will not faint, she told herself, refusing to embarrass herself further that evening. She could hear a rush of voices from the ballroom, and she paused, wondering if they were discussing the fresh news from Lady Dawkins’ lips. The Earl of Elspeth’s daughter has tarnished herself by being found kissing the Duke of Marsh on his own balcony.
The door seemed an eternity away from her. She struggled towards it. “I have to leave,” she said to herself, when her cousin Benjamin, Viscount Tarlington, tumbled out of the balcony doors, breathless.
“Sarah,” he said, his eyes full of concern. He hurried to her and took up her hands in his, clutching them tightly. “Are you all right? We just heard the news. Lady Dawkins came straight to your mother to tell her.” His expression turned grim. “What did that bastard do?”
“I was a fool, Ben,” she stammered, feeling dizzier by the minute, but glad her cousin was there to comfort her. Was it possible the news could already have spread? Had the old woman no care for anyone’s reputation, especially someone so new to the Season? “I have to go. I cannot stay here any longer.”
“But what happened? Did he try to push you further than a kiss? That bastard will propose to you for this! I’ll make him!” Ben had murder in his eyes, and Sarah gripped his arm.
“Please don’t. Just take me home. I don’t want to be here any longer. I was a fool, Ben, and now, I think that I have ruined everything.”
Wrapping his arm about her shoulders, Ben took her down the balcony steps to leave through the back entrance. “Everything will be fine, Sarah. I swear it.”
Sarah leaned against him, glad for his help to the carriage. He was kind to swear that all would be well, but she was certain just then that life as she knew it was over.
Three Years Later
Covent Garden, London, November 1811
“Henrietta, the soup is wonderful. Thank you. Just what I needed after meeting with Ben tonight.” Sarah brought another spoonful to her lips, grateful for the heat it gave. Winter was soon to be in London, and the threadbare clothes she still wore were no longer strong enough to keep out the cold. Once December came, it would begin to seep into her bones, and Henrietta, her lady’s maid and companion, would have to stack the wood as high as possible in the fireplace to keep the chill from the three rooms they shared.
“You are most welcome, My Lady,” Henrietta said, eating beside her. “And? What did Viscount Tarlington say about the letter you received? Will he help in time before we are to be thrown out?”
“Of course,” Sarah replied, and she pushed a lock of hair behind her ears. “He will find us new lodgings as soon as possible so that we can avoid this ‘ghost’. Then, it will give him a bit of time to find us something more permanent. Don’t worry. My cousin has helped us these three years. He would not abandon us now.”
“I know. He has been very kind to us. I wonder if your mother knows where you are or that he’s been helping you for so long.” Sarah said nothing in reply but returned to eating her soup. After her next spoonful, she tied her wrap around her just a little tighter. She didn’t want to think about her mother.
Three years before, after the debacle at the Duke of Marsh’s Season-ending ball, Sarah’s reputation was in tatters. A small part of her traitorous heart hoped and prayed that the duke’s heart would soften at her predicament, but he never came. She was now relegated to one of the many silly girls that threw themselves onto the Duke in hopes of a proposal, only to receive none. The ton was merciless in its gossip, and Sarah had spent the next week after that crying in her room until her mother had presented her with some options.
“You will marry the widowed Earl, Lord Tarton, or you will leave this house,” her mother had told her when the week was up. She brought her daughter to the drawing room to meet the positively ancient and leering Lord Tarton, who grinned at her with blackened teeth as she sat by her family’s fire. Once their conversation was over and the Earl had left, Sarah turned to her mother.
“Does Father know of this?” she asked her mother, but she shook her head.
“Leave your father out of this. He is far too soft as it is,” her mother had replied sharply.
“But what of elevating the family’s status in society? Why find a Earl for me to marry,” Sarah asked. She did not wish to wed this man and tried to find a reason to call off their engagement. “Given what has happened, your prospects for a more highly stationed man has diminished. You have no one to blame but yourself for being careless. The Earl is widowed and readily available for a new wife. At the very least he has some wealth to sustain you and your reputation will be repaired once married. This is your only option.” Her mother’s stern voice showed that she would not change her mind on the matter no matter how much Sarah pleaded.
“No, I cannot do this mother,” Sarah had told her as she rose from her chair. She knew she could never take Lord Tarton as a husband. But if what her mother said was true, what man would take her as his wife? Her dreams had broken in that moment once again, and she knew that by refusing the marriage she was making a choice that would affect everything; But the choice had to be made. From that moment, Sarah was ousted from her own home, the home she’d grown up in, with only the clothes on her back and a few of her favorite trinkets. Henrietta had left with her, and the two of them had gone to her cousin Benjamin for aid.
He’d installed them in a hidden-away house in an area called Covent Garden and had paid for everything for the last three years. All hope of love, marriage, and a future had been lost to her, and now Sarah was far thinner, three years older, and had an embittered view of the world. Since then, Sarah had not spoken to her parents, and she wasn’t sure that she would want to if they tried to find her. But she did miss her father.
Henrietta continued speaking, unaware of the thoughts which raged inside of Sarah’s mind. “It is strange that after so long the landlord should wish to threaten us with leaving the house. Why didn’t he come to speak with us directly? What should he gain from it? Do you think the landlord wishes to install someone else in the house without telling us? As if maybe he’s found someone who’s willing to pay more money than us?”
Sarah shook her head. It was all so unusual. Over the past weeks, she had had the uncomfortable feeling of eyes on the house. Normally, there were many unsavory people in that part of town, doing Lord knew what, but this was different. The eyes seemed turned towards the house, watching it, wishing it harm. She wasn’t sure what it was, but she had a dark feeling of dread. And whenever she or Henrietta left the house for any errands, they seemed to always be trailed by a sort of shadow. She thought it might have been robbers, but there was nothing they had to steal.
“I doubt it, Henrietta. It seems like a lot of effort for him. He could simply come to us and demand more money, and if we couldn’t pay, tell us to leave. I don’t think he’d go out of his way to get more and kick us out through such strange, mysterious means.” She had only met the landlord a couple of times, but from her impression of him, she knew that he didn’t have the intelligence to pull off such a scheme, and again, it was purposeless.
She nodded her head confidently to keep her nerves from taking hold. “Ben will help us. I know it. So, we should pack and prepare to leave as soon as he comes back tomorrow.” Henrietta agreed. Silently, they finished their meals, each musing to themselves, and Henrietta cleaned up the dishes.
Sarah moved to the fireplace and poured herself a glass of wine. Ben had given them whatever they needed over the years, and while she was grateful to him, terribly so, she didn’t want to put him out. She’d refused for him to buy her new dresses, for example, but she accepted minimal basic clothes, food and drink, and other necessities. The line had to be drawn somewhere. Never would she be able to repay her cousin for the sacrifices he’d made for her.
And now he was in love with someone, and she didn’t want to get in the way of that either. What woman would wish to marry a man who was already supporting another who was not his mother? And secretly so?
She took a sip, feeling that familiar ache for normalcy, for a real life. This same ache had plagued her ever since the duke had kissed her and left her on his balcony to suffer the consequences for the rest of her days. But he’d gone on to marry a wealthy and beautiful heiress. At least he had grown slightly fat in the last years, according to the rumors. That was some comfort to her, but it did little to soothe the bitterness and the sadness.
The ache for her old life was worse at night when everything was quiet, and a hush descended upon the city she had once known and loved. Now, it felt like she was always hiding in darkness. Ben had come to her late that evening, once he’d received her hurried note, and even though fatigue clung to her bones, as it usually did, she couldn’t sleep. There was too much at stake.
She heard a creaking sound and a thump and called out to the other room. “Henrietta, is that you?”
But there was no answer. There was an eerie silence after, and slowly, Sarah put down her glass and stood. Her skin went cold.
Had the ghost come back so soon?
“Henrietta?” she called again tremulously, hoping her dear friend was all right and just was taking rubbish out the back door to be burned. No answer. Instead, a man appeared in the doorway to the sitting room, a grin on his dirtied and scarred face. He wore a rough woolen cap, and his eyes were dark, the darkest she’d ever seen.
“I hope you have gotten my letter, My Lady, but I’m sorry for coming a bit earlier,” he said in a gruff voice. “The letter? Then it was not from the landlord,” Sarah said with a gasp. She was in shock at the events unfolding before her. But it was not the appearance of the man which had scared Sarah and made her feel weak. It was that he had a frightened Henrietta in his strong grasp, a thick hand over her mouth.
Ten minutes later, Sarah sat in a carriage with Henrietta at her side. They held hands, and Sarah could feel her lady’s maid trembling. Henrietta was strong in many ways, but she was also easily frightened. Sarah was trying her best to remain as calm as possible. People often enjoyed fear in others and gained strength from it. She didn’t want to do that for their captor. The man who’d taken them sat across from them, rubbing the stubble on his chin and watching them with interest.
“Why do this, and who has sent you?” Sarah asked, her anger and fear growing in equal measure.
The man shrugged. “I am a simple man. But I do need to have a business to live. I do what I have been asked to do. For payment, of course. That is all you need to know, My Lady. Do not worry. You will be safe. Safe enough.”
Sarah looked away from him and out of the window. In this part of town, there were hardly any streetlamps, and so she couldn’t see where they were going. Not that she’d ventured very far from her Covent Garden house for years.
Who should wish us to leave the house and go elsewhere? How would anyone else know where we were except Ben?
Thoughts of the duke filled her mind, for he was the most likely person to come up with a plan so cruel, but again, he had no reason to try to injure her since he left the balcony with his reputation intact. Who else could it be then?
She squeezed Henrietta’s hand tighter. At least her lady’s maid hadn’t been hurt, but the man had threatened it while he forced Sarah to pack their meager belongings and get out as soon as possible. Sarah had tried to refuse, but she could see the silver glint of a blade at his side. And the man had oozed danger at every turn. She couldn’t risk Henrietta’s life by refusing to do what he’d asked. Even if she didn’t understand.
“Where are we going?” she asked again.
“To a different house. That is all. Now, keep quiet.” His voice lowered to a dangerous level, and she shut her mouth tight.
Henrietta squeezed Sarah’s hand back again in warning, and Sarah kept quiet until the carriage slowed.
“Here we are then,” the man said in a slightly cheerful tone. He jumped out of the carriage and lowered the steps, but he didn’t help them descend. Instead, he took a lantern from the driver, and held it up towards the façade of the new house. All she could see from the dim light of the lantern that the house had a red door. The house was even smaller than before, and as soon as Sarah and Henrietta emerged, Sarah took out her handkerchief and placed it on her nose.
She grimaced. The street reeked of a horrible smell, a mixture of things she didn’t want to identify. The man didn’t seem to notice or mind. “Your house, My Lady,” he said with a flourish of a hand. His tone was mocking. Sarah pulled her wrap tighter around herself as she took in the gleam of his wicked smile.
He handed her the keys and said, “And my duty is done.” In a flash, he had given the lantern to the driver, jumped into a carriage, and then he was off. Sarah blinked after him, wondering if she would wake up any moment from this nightmare.
Henrietta stepped closer to her, a small valise in her hand. She was shivering. “My Lady, we had better get inside quickly. There are a few seedy characters about.” Sarah turned to see a few shadows milling about nearby.
“Quite right, Henrietta,” she said, trying not to tremble too much as she pushed the key into the lock and turned it. The door creaked open, and even though they couldn’t see inside, they rushed in and shut the door behind them.
“Dear God,” Sarah couldn’t help but say as they got swallowed up in the inky blackness. The inside of the house didn’t feel totally empty, but it was dark. Too dark. She felt for the lock of the door and locked it tight. “At least that will keep the shadows at bay for now. Come, Henrietta.”
Slowly, her eyes adjusted, but barely. “We will have to make do with what we have for the moment. But first, we must find some way to light a fire. I cannot believe the man didn’t give us his lantern. Or help us in any way.” She paused. “Well, I suppose I can, but I’m still surprised. Let’s wander the room a bit and see if we cannot find something. It is too cold of a night to go without a fire.” She shivered, and she could feel her teeth begin to chatter. If they didn’t warm up soon, there could be trouble, but she pushed that from her mind.
I am not about to die here. Not now. Not tonight.
“Yes, Mistress,” Henrietta said dutifully, and together they moved about the room slowly, their eyes adjusting even more. Spreading her fingers and palms on tables and the mantelpiece, Sarah finally found something.
“Ah, the tinderbox!” she said gleefully. She knelt down in front of the fireplace, and Henrietta found wood inside and to the side.
“I don’t know how good it will be,” Henrietta said honestly, “for it seems like it has been here a while. But at least it is dry.”
Sarah shrugged, determined not to let this latest change get her down. Giving up would only mean her end. Right now, she had to focus on surviving the night. She opened the tinderbox and pulled out the flint and steel wool. She struck and struck, so determined, her tongue stuck out as she worked. Eventually sparks flew into the fireplace, and Henrietta blew on them slowly until it grew.
“At least there were some small twigs there,” Sarah said, watching the fire grow hopefully. After a few minutes, the logs had caught flame, and she and Henrietta sat before it, warming themselves.
Her shivering slowly began to ease. “I’m sorry, Henrietta. This is our fate now.”
“Never apologize, Mistress. You have done well by me, and I shall do well by you. You are a good woman, and you didn’t deserve what happened to you.” Henrietta put her arm through Sarah’s and together, they watched the flames grow. It would be a long night.
“Finally, we can go and save Sarah,” Ben said to his friend Arthur, Viscount Brighton, as they rode from Arthur’s family home to the docks on Pearl Street. They had just completed their evening meal, an engagement celebration between Benjamin Mason, his best friend, and his sister, Amelia.
“I wonder what your uncle must have said to your aunt to make her give up the information. As you’ve said, he’s been under her heel for years. Now, he must be gaining strength.” Arthur could hear the anger in his own voice.
Arthur was hardly ever angry, preferring to be flirtatious, cheerful, and humorous, but this was too much. Ben’s aunt and uncle had abandoned their one child and all because of a mistake that a man had made. It made him feel a guilt he wasn’t comfortable with. He had kissed many a young and willing woman, and more than that over the years, and he hadn’t thought for a second about their reputations.
“I’m glad you asked me to help you this evening,” Arthur added. “We’re family now, aren’t we?” He smiled, trying to forget about the guilt which only grew and grew, the further they rode.
“Soon to be.” Ben rubbed his chin. “And as for my uncle, I don’t know. But I’m glad he finally had enough strength to stand up to her. Imagine it. Doing this to your own daughter. Moving her to keep her from being helped.” He shook his head, and Arthur knew his friend was still in disbelief about it all.
He turned to look out of the carriage as the shadowed buildings flew past. Not only was Arthur’s guilt growing, but so was his nervousness. He hadn’t seen Lady Sarah in years, and in fact, Ben hadn’t even told him about how he’d been helping her over the years. When she first came out, Arthur remembered how pretty and happy she was, always smiling. He thought her the prettiest woman he’d ever seen, and while he was well-practiced and charming when speaking to any other pretty woman, Lady Sarah had always known what to say to put him in his place.
Since he and Ben were so close, he had known Lady Sarah for many years, and he was shocked that she had fallen so far, losing her reputation and leaving society forever. It was a great loss, and he wondered how she now fared.
“Is she very changed, Ben?” Arthur asked, turning back to face his friend.
“She is not as happy, as you can expect. There is a sadness hanging about her before. I haven’t heard in laugh in a long, long time. But I hope that one day, she can get her laughter back.” Ben furrowed his brow. “Thank you for coming with me. I know that I kept this from you, and I shouldn’t have. I just didn’t think that I had anyone else to turn to.”
“It was a shock, to be sure. To find out that your roguish best friend, who was a little more secretive than you about his roguishness, turned around to be a completely decent man.” Arthur gave a low chuckle. “Makes a man feel a bit of shame.”
“Only a bit?” Ben teased, lifting a brow.
“Of course. I couldn’t possibly feel more than a bit,” Arthur joked back. It was his way of moving through life, to joke, in order to not feel anything too deeply or to remind him that he had never done anything noble or purposeful. And his friend had showed him just what a truly noble thing looked like. He wondered if he would have ever that feeling.
“We’re here, I’d say,” Ben replied, looking out of the window. “Pearl Street, like my uncle said. We’ll have to search along the road for the right house.” He knocked on the top of the carriage, and it stopped completely.
When they jumped out, Ben had a few words with the driver, and then he joined Arthur on the side of the road. Arthur peered in the darkness at house to house. Ben had a lantern in his hands.
Arthur said, “Red door, right? Good thing this road isn’t very long. But by God, the stench is getting unbearable.” He coughed and drew a handkerchief to his nose.
Ben was grimacing beside him. “I know. That’d be the river around here.” He looked from side to side. “But it doesn’t seem that many doors are red, except,” he paused and pointed. “There. There’s one.” Arthur could hear the excitement in Ben’s voice.
They hurried across the street until they paused in front of the door, and looking from one side to the other, Ben knocked quietly. Arthur crossed and uncrossed his arms, feeling even more nervous. Would he even recognize her? Would she recognize him? Would she be all right? Was this even the right house?
It took a bit of time before someone answered, but eventually, the door opened cautiously, and a short, dark-haired woman poked her head out. “Yes?” she asked, before her nervous expression turned to one of relief. “Oh, thanks be to God! My Lord, you’ve saved us!” she cried and opened the door further. “Mistress!” she called behind her.
Arthur stepped back for Ben to walk in first, and Ben hurried inside to embrace Sarah in what looked to be the main sitting room. He could hear the emotion in his friend’s voice as Ben said, “Dear God, Sarah! Are you all right? I’m sorry it took us so long.”
Arthur closed the door behind them and then stood at the entryway, waiting quietly while the cousins reunited. Ben pulled back but still held onto her shoulders and looked down at her. The room’s fire was large, but it was only when Ben pulled away that Arthur finally got a good look at her, and he felt an old, very familiar heart flip.
He hadn’t felt it in years, with anyone else, but now, here he was, in a disgusting hovel in Covent Garden where everywhere stank and was dirty. And he felt it because of a woman he hadn’t seen in years.
Lady Sarah Manning was changed, much changed, but at the same time, hardly changed at all. She was the same beautiful Lady Sarah that he’d known for much of his life, but subdued somehow, like the light he had seen in her was now gone. In that moment, Arthur wanted more than anything to return that light to her. But how?
What kinds of foolish thoughts are these? He asked himself, wanting to roll his eyes at his behavior.
Ben turned to Arthur, still touching Lady Sarah’s arm. “Sarah, you remember Lord Brighton?” Ben asked with a smile. “I hope you don’t mind, but I wanted him to come with me tonight. To help if anything became…problematic.”
Lady Sarah’s green eyes turned to Arthur, and the heart flip happened again.
Curse this stupid heart.
He got closer, took her hand, and kissed it. “Lady Sarah. I’m so glad you’re safe. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other last.”
“Yes, it has,” she said, giving him a stiff smile. Just as she always had, Lady Sarah made him feel like his usual practiced words and movements were terribly awkward. “Good to see you again, Lord Brighton. You have my gratitude for your help.” She pulled her hand out of his.
“We should go. Let us help you gather your things,” he said, wanting to help but unsure how to.
“There is not much to gather.” She hugged Ben again. “Oh, I am so glad you’ve come. I didn’t know what we were going to do. Henrietta and I had barely enough money to last the next few days.”
Henrietta appeared in the doorway. “Yes, and Madame wanted to run away! Perhaps to some wild, foreign place!” Her face paled, and Arthur stifled a laugh, getting a narrow-eyed look from Sarah.
“Well, you don’t have to now,” Ben said happily. “Please come with us. You’re coming to my townhouse until we can figure something out. Both of you.”
Together, they gathered what they could, and rode back to Ben’s home. And soon, Lady Sarah was wandering about her new rooms on the highest floor of Ben’s home, her eyes wide with wonder.
“Do you know who did this, Ben?” Sarah asked.
Ben shook his head, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t know exactly, Sarah. But all that matters is that you’re safe now.”
She wasn’t sure about that, but she was too tired to push him on it at the moment.
“Are you sure about this? Me staying here?” she asked. Sitting down on the bed, her eyes darted between Arthur and Ben. Arthur put his hands behind his back, waiting for Ben to answer.
“Yes, it will be perfect. You have your own apartments, and no one will disturb you,” Ben replied. “I have so much room, I don’t know what to do with it all. And I’d rather you be here than at the seaside cottage anyway. That’s too far and too dangerous.”
“But you’re engaged now,” Lady Sarah cried. “I don’t wish to impose on you and your fiancée.” Lady Sarah bit her bottom lip, frowning with concern.
“Don’t worry, Sarah, you could never be in the way,” Arthur said foolishly, jumping in, realizing that he’d said it far too tenderly and forgotten to use her title. Now that they were older, it would be unseemly for him to not use it. He opened his mouth of fix his mistake but thought better of it. Instead, he cleared his throat and looked at Ben, who gave him a slight smirk.
He tried not to think about how he sounded, and instead listened to Lady Sarah and Ben discuss how Amelia didn’t mind her being there in the slightest. Eventually, Lady Sarah agreed with a sigh and thanked her cousin again.
For a few seconds, Arthur considered leaving the room, feeling like he was intruding upon a family moment.
“I considered leaving the country, you know,” she said.
“How exciting,” Arthur answered, feeling stupid again.
Why am I going all to pieces around the woman? I charm women every day, and now I can barely say anything useful?
He felt Ben’s hand on his shoulder as Ben explained what the servants would do for Lady Sarah and reminded her to rest. They said their goodbyes, and Arthur gave Lady Sarah a quick smile before following Ben out into the hall. He tensed, waiting to see if his friend had noticed his idiocy.
Ben was smiling as they walked down the stairs. “Perhaps I need to be the one to start teaching you how to speak to a lady of quality. Upstairs, you acted so differently; I barely recognized you.”
Arthur shot him a dark look and hit him in the arm. “I do not need your assistance, old friend. I can handle myself just fine.” He straightened his shoulders a bit, making Ben laugh again.
“All right then,” Ben said, and once they were down at the bottom of the stairs, Arthur knew that a wager was at hand. He had to win it, or else his secret about how he felt about Lady Sarah would come to light. He couldn’t have that. He had a reputation to uphold, didn’t he? And he thought he’d gotten over that foolish childhood crush. It was not as if she’d ever given him any more attention than was due a friend of her cousin.
“Show me your skills once again at the engagement party and ball that our mothers will be throwing here in a couple of days,” Ben teased.
Arthur grinned. “You know that I can easily make any of the young women at the ball smile and laugh heartily.”
Ben chuckled, and then at the door, he said, “We have a wager. Sarah looked well, did she not?” he added teasingly, making Arthur scowl again. She looked far too well, and he didn’t want to think about it.
“I’d better be off. You have far too high of an opinion of yourself now, Ben,” he said, and he took his leave, hearing Ben laugh behind him before he shut the door.
Arthur’s horse was waiting for him, and the streets were quiet as he rode back to his family home. He had been smiling with his friend and with Lady Sarah, but the closer he got to home, his mood turned grim. Just when things were turning out well in his life, when he felt confident, powerful, not in need of anybody but his family, he had to feel that stupid heart flip. The flip that made him feel weak and vulnerable instead of the one in charge.
Not only that, but every time he looked into Lady Sarah’s eyes, he was reminded of his thoughtlessness with women, and how she’d experienced far more dark things than he’d ever experienced. Yet she’d come out on the other side, and he could still see the elegance and grace in her bearing. She was everything that he was not, and he knew that it was a foolish thing, but he worried what she thought of him after all this time. And for the first time in his whole life, Arthur began to brood.
Servants came and went, bringing hot water for a bath as well as food, and Sarah wanted to cry at the treatment she was receiving. She had grown up with it before, but she’d never thought anything of it. Now that she had been starved of good treatment for three years, she would never take it for granted again.
“Thank you,” she said to the last servant as they curtsied out of the room, and quickly, Sarah undressed and slid into the warm bath in front of the large fire. A sigh escaped her, and it felt like finally, after years, much of the burden she had held on her shoulders was slipping away. Tears pricked at her eyes, and before she could stop them, she was sobbing quietly, so happy to be where she was.
It was relief but also gratitude at her cousin’s kindness. He was taking a big risk to his reputation and Amelia’s reputation by allowing her to stay with him, but she was so happy that he had taken that risk. Given how fickle the ton could be, Ben and Amelia could be viewed as saints for taking in a ‘wayward’ family member or be shunned unless a partnership was deemed valuable. It felt good to finally have a full belly and a warm, hot bath without worrying about firewood running out or some unsavory character looking in her windows.
Or who had wanted me moved from the house in Covent Garden to the wreckage by the docks.
She would ask him again later about it. After her tears subsided, she let her eyelids droop as she leaned back against the metal side of the tub. But they fluttered open when the first thing her mind saw was Arthur’s face when he first laid eyes on her at her hovel that evening.
She frowned at herself. “I have just been saved from a life of drudgery, away from all kinds of dangers, and I am thinking about him?”
Lord Brighton had always been handsome. It was one of the most annoying things about him because against her will, Sarah had always noticed him. He could never keep himself out of the light for along. With his cheery attitude, his joking, his charm, and his good looks, Arthur was always the center of attention, and she remembered young women whispering about him everywhere he went.
Even now, years after she’d seen him, he looked even more handsome. It was like his good looks had finally settled and matured, and now he was everything masculine and charming. His wide shoulders had filled out, and he looked even taller than she remembered being. When he took her hand as he greeted her, his hands had been large and strong.
It was the eyes which had reminded her of the old Arthur. Light blue, playful, teasing, and she was annoyed that there had been a little tingle of memory of how attractive she’d always found him. But at the same time, she knew his reputation as a flirtatious man. He had already secured it even before she had lost everything the night of the Duke of Marsh’s ball.
Arthur was a rake and a rogue, through and through. It was evident in every move he made and every word he uttered. He was confident in the way he could attract women to him, and Sarah hated that kind of man. She wanted nothing to do with men any longer and certainly not with men who thought that they could do whatever they liked with women before leaving them to deal with the consequences.
She sighed with frustration and began to scrub at her skin with a cloth in order to distract herself. Once she was clean and dried, she dressed in the shift which had been laid out for her and slipped into bed. Thoughts of Arthur began to fade as Sarah slipped into a peaceful slumber.
A few days later
Sarah was sitting at the small table at the window in her room when there was a soft knock at the door. “Come in,” she called, putting down the book she’d been reading. It felt so wonderful to simply sit and read and let her mind wander.
Expecting Henrietta, Sarah didn’t turn around right away, but then she heard the soft voice of her cousin’s fiancée. “Sarah, I thought you might like a few sweets.”
Sarah smiled as she saw a smiling Amelia walking towards her table, and she laid down a few biscuits on a platter in front of her. “Ben tells me that these are a particular favorite of yours,” Amelia said, “and I thought you might like some.”
Sarah looked down at the small tea biscuits, and she smiled. “Thank you. That is so thoughtful. Please do join me if you are not too busy.”
“Certainly not. I came to the house today with the sole purpose of seeing you. Arthur is here is as well, downstairs with Ben,” Amelia said cheerfully, and Sarah tried not to let her emotions show on her face. She hadn’t seen Arthur since last night after the ball when everyone sat to discuss it, and he had looked far too handsome, with his dark coat and matching dark boots.
“Well, thank you,” Sarah replied, picking up a biscuit and taking a bite.
“I’m sorry. I should have thought to bring tea,” Amelia said, squinting her nose.
Sarah laughed. It felt good to laugh lightly again over tea biscuits. Amelia was so charming and pretty, and the picture of health. Sarah smiled, but she felt a little embarrassed at her own, certainly wan appearance.
“No matter, Amelia. These biscuits are good at any time of day.” Sarah took up another one. “Will you have one?”
“No, I have already had plenty downstairs,” she laughed. “I wish you would come and join us there. No one would know.”
Sarah hesitated. “I do not want to ruin anything for anyone. It is better if I wait until after dark like we did last night.”
Amelia nodded. “I suppose, but I hate the thought of you sitting up here on your own when we are downstairs having a lovely time. Arthur is making his jokes as usual.” Amelia rolled her eyes, and Sarah liked her even more for it. However, last night, she could see the love between the siblings. It was touching and showed a side to Arthur that she hadn’t known before. Amelia had never come around when Arthur had come to visit Ben.
“Well, then perhaps it is best I stay up here,” she said, making Amelia laugh.
“I see you remember my brother’s personality. Even after all these years.”
Unfortunately, yes, Sarah thought angrily.
“He is hard to forget, that is true,” Amelia added with a twinkle in her eye. Sarah blushed a little, looking down at the biscuits, taking another and biting into it.
“Yes, well,” Sarah replied, after swallowing, “we are a similar age. I remember him from when he and Ben would always spend time together. He is hard to forget. I quite agree.”
Amelia laughed again. “My brother can be the most charming of men, but at the same time, he can be the devil. Handsome though.” Amelia rolled her eyes. “And doesn’t he know it.”
This time, it was Sarah who laughed. But eager to get off the topic of just how handsome Arthur was, she asked, “How does everything fare with the wedding?”
“Oh, well, my mother is very excited to begin the planning. She has invited nearly all of Christendom to attend, and the banns will be read this Sunday. It took her some time to adjust to the news of our engagement. A few hours at most. But now she is completely overjoyed.” Amelia leaned forward and whispered. “In fact, so overjoyed that I cannot wait to leave the house. She seems to scream with delight at every other moment whenever she has a new idea!”
Sarah laughed again, and she patted Amelia’s hand. “Thank you for coming up to see me. I needed your merry presence today. And I must tell you, I completely understand why Ben has chosen you. You’re perfect for him.” Sarah smiled, trying not to think about the ache of having lost her mother, or rather having a mother who never cared for her more than what she could bring her in terms of reputation.
Amelia blushed and pushed a stray hair behind her ear. “You are far too kind to me, Sarah. I think I have plenty of faults, even though I tease Ben mercilessly for his.” Her eyes twinkled, and Sarah felt a wave of envy seeing her so in love. Sarah had forgotten how much she wanted to love and be loved. To find the one man who her heart wanted. That was all over now. All hope for that was lost.
“It is good to tease Ben. He can be rather big-headed as well,” Sarah said with a wink.
Amelia stood. “I will be sure to remind him of that at every turn. Now, are you certain you won’t join us for tea?”
“Well, I,” she was about to say when there was a knock at the door. “Come in!” Sarah called, but she blushed furiously and stood up when she saw Arthur and Ben on the other side, with Ben carrying a tea tray.
“We hope you don’t mind, but I thought we should bring tea up to you, Sarah. Even though we knew Amelia was going to ask you to join us downstairs, I knew you’d refuse,” Ben said kindly. “I know it is all rather untoward, but what say you? It is just us. And the servants are already aware of our situation.”
“Of course,” Sarah stuttered, knowing that she couldn’t possibly refuse even if she had no interest in seeing Arthur. “Please sit down.” She sat as the others joined her at the table, and Amelia took it upon herself to pour the tea, sending a small apology with her eyes.
“Lady Sarah,” Arthur said with a grin. “You’re looking well this morning.” His eyes seemed bluer and more intense than before, and she tried to keep the blush from worsening. Seeing him so much made her daydreams about them all the clearer, and she was trying her best to put a stop to them.
“Lord Brighton. Thank you.” She blushed a little more. Changing the subject, she turned to the others. “Are you all recovered from last evening?” she asked hastily, not liking the small looks that Ben and Amelia gave one another after Arthur greeted her in such a complimentary way. She clung to her teacup like a protective talisman and took a sip.
“We are well used to such things,” Arthur said, sitting up a little taller, making Sarah frown.
Of course he is. The man is a rogue! Flitting about town at all hours, no doubt!
“Yes, well,” Ben said, clearing his throat. “It was not so terribly late. We were able to sit up and speak with you after. I was happy to send the old hens away from the party.” He sighed. “They were getting too excited, asking far too many questions about wedding planning, and asking me about how I fared in convincing Amelia’s father to let her marry me, despite my good reputation. I was nervous that he would say no. Thank the heavens he gave us his blessing.”
Arthur chuckled and patted Ben on the back. “Well, I’ll be sure to spread some things of my own, hoping to change your reputation in the eyes of the ton, or at least the men who frequent Goldenrod Gentlemen’s Club.” He smirked, and Sarah felt justified in her opinion of Arthur.
A rogue, no matter how handsome he might be, she thought with determination.
“Yes,” Amelia said, putting her teacup down and getting an excited twinkle in her eye. “I wonder if it’s possible that we could change Sarah’s reputation too.” She bit her lip, trying not to smile too hard, but Sarah frowned.
“Not possible, I’m afraid, Amelia. Women do not have the same luxuries as men.” Sarah let her gaze wander to Arthur. She lifted a brow at him, and his eyes widened in response. She looked away quickly, a pang of guilt running through her.
“No, it could be,” Amelia replied, not daunted by Sarah’s doubts. “All we need to do is plan it right.”
The next afternoon, Arthur ordered another drink at Goldenrod, when he saw Ben coming towards him. “Ah, there you are,” Ben said, a little too loudly for the older men of the club.
A chorus of shushing filled the room from the older members, and rolling his eyes, Ben sat down in the leather chair across from Arthur and leaned forward. “I think we may have to change clubs. This one is far too filled with gentlemen with less hair than they have manners.”
Arthur chuckled and took up his glass when the waiter brought him a fresh whiskey. Ben ordered one as well. “And? What brings you to the club today, old friend? Surely you would wish to spend as much time as possible with my sister before the wedding. And I’m sure that my mother is wanting you and Amelia each day to wander about Hyde Park, so everyone who is important can look upon you. An earl’s daughter married to an earl’s son. How charming,” he teased.
His tone was lighthearted, but for the first time, he felt a little jealous of Ben’s happiness.
What am I thinking? I never wanted marriage. Not ever. It is a trap, he reminded himself.
“Yes, well, don’t worry. I have done my duty as fiancé and walked with your sister in the park this morning. Don’t you know what time it is?” Ben asked with a laugh.
Arthur turned around to look out of one of the windows. It was soon evening. “Ah, I suppose I did not.”
Ben frowned. “What have you been doing with yourself in here all day? You seem…different. You are happy about the engagement, are you not? Because if you have some objection, you must tell me straight away. We can find a solution.”
Arthur held out a hand and tried to smile, even though his dark mood was returning. What was wrong with him? “No, no, not at all! I am very happy for you. For you both! You are a lucky man, for my sister is the best creature in the world.” He grinned wider.
Ben looked proud. “You are definitely right about that. Well, then what else is it? It seems that ever since we brought Sarah back to the house, you’ve been brooding a little. And when you’re with her, you’re not quite yourself.”
“You’ve mentioned,” Arthur said with a sarcastic drawl. “But did I not do well at your engagement ball? Making the women laugh as I usually do? Charming them with my roguish ways? Did I not win the wager you made me?”
Ben chuckled. He leaned back in his chair, his whiskey glass in hand. “Yes, I suppose you did. You had all the women falling at your feet, Arthur. And yet, there is one who doesn’t seem to do so.”
Arthur bristled and took a long sip from his drink. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Of course you do. I see you trying to use your charming ways on Sarah because it is such a habit of yours, and yet, you are receiving nothing in return.”
“What do I mean to receive?” Arthur said sharply. “She is simply one woman who doesn’t think anything of me. In fact, I think she detests me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go as far as that,” Ben laughed, “but I am finding it very entertaining that my cousin is bringing your pride down a peg or two.”
“Oh, are you?” Arthur asked, putting his glass down. “And here I thought we were friends, Ben. See? I told you I’m surprised at how you’ve turned out after this engagement. Full of your own importance, turning your nose down at others. What was that Amelia mentioned? Pride goes before a fall?”
Ben held up his hands, laughing. “I am only teasing you of course, Arthur. It is just…interesting. I haven’t seen this Arthur since we were young. But enough of that. I wondered if you might join me for dinner tonight, and then Sarah may join us. It is not yet acceptable for Amelia to come on her own at night, and I’d rather your parents and my parents not be privy to Sarah’s location at the moment. Will you come? Give Sarah some company. I know that she does not detest you, and I know that you like her.”
Arthur sat up to protest, but Ben replied with a smirk, “As a friend, of course. And you are the only one involved in our little secret.” Ben lifted his brows hopefully, and Arthur smiled.
“Of course. It is not as if I had other plans this evening, anyway.”
“No? No gallivanting about town, gambling or visiting less than savory taverns?” Ben asked.
Arthur shook his head. “No, not tonight. I don’t seem to have the energy for it at the moment.” He finished his whiskey and stood, not wanting to think too much about how he was curbing his usual habits to go and visit a woman who he knew didn’t care much for him. But in some ways, it felt good to see her anyway.
“Shall we?” he asked, and with a quick swig, Ben finished his own drink. Standing with a smile, he nodded. “We shall.”
As they walked up the steps to Ben’s home, Arthur tried to improve his mood. Never in all his life had he felt so solemn and forlorn for more than a few minutes. And he was about to go see Lady Sarah, a woman whose good opinion he wanted, even though he couldn’t figure out why. He schooled a smile on his face and reminded himself of his success at the engagement ball.
Amelia’s good friends Harriet and Olivia were always eager to speak to him, and Olivia always laughed prettily at anything he said. Many of the other young ladies he asked to dance blushed and smiled happily whenever he complimented them.
I am well-skilled at speaking to women. I can make Lady Sarah smile, he thought, trying to imbue himself with confidence.
Besides, it felt good to focus on someone else’s happiness for a change. Even though he loved Amelia dearly and would do anything for her, there was another now on whom her happiness depended. And most of the time, Arthur pursued his own pleasures.
“Cook has been preparing some special dishes since Sarah arrived,” Ben said, once they were inside and had given the butler their hats and gloves. “She is very glad to be cooking for more than just me.”
“You don’t want your parents to visit?” Arthur asked as they made their way to the drawing room. Ben whispered something to the butler, and the man nodded and left.
“Not that I do not want them to, but it seems to only make my mother’s concern for me and my father worse. My father has gained some strength, but the recent balls have tired him out, and it’s just easier for me to visit them there.”
“Certainly, they wish to see Amelia,” Arthur replied, making himself comfortable.
“Oh, yes,” he laughed. “Every other day, we are going there to have tea or to visit. My parents adore her.” Arthur felt another pang of envy as he saw the look of love on Ben’s face. “It is a good thing we are getting married. I think my mother was about to give up all hope for it. Now, at least her fears of the future of the dukedom are quelled.” Ben frowned. “I don’t know how long my father will last. He was brightened by the engagement, but he hasn’t fully recovered as he has in the past.”
“I’m sorry, Ben,” Arthur replied, thinking how it would feel to have one’s own father fall victim to illness over and over and leave this life before it was time. He chided himself once more at his selfishness over the last few years. “And I’m sorry that I’ve not been of more help to you. You’ve had so much to deal with, and I have been focusing on simple pleasures.”
“Well, sometimes simple pleasures are all you need! You were always there, Arthur. I have not met a cheerier soul than you, and that means a lot when there are difficult times. That is why your recent behavior has struck me as odd.”
Arthur was glad that the subject was interrupted by the door opening and the butler appearing with a tray of drinks. He, stumbled to his feet, however, when he saw Lady Sarah trailing in behind him.
She smiled at Ben, but her smile faded when she looked at Arthur. His heart flipped a little again, and he cleared his throat. “Lady Sarah,” he said. “Your cousin was good enough to invite me to dinner.”
“Was he?” she asked. “Well, a good evening to you, Lord Brighton.” The butler handed each person a glass of sherry, and Lady Sarah settled herself on the couch next to Ben. Arthur tried his best, but he found himself staring.
Her brown hair was curled and pinned prettily on her head. Her dinner gown was the color of cream, and she looked less pale and tired than she had a few days before. However, her light had not yet returned.
“You have had some dresses made?” he asked, trying not to roll his eyes at his poor attempt at conversation.
Lady Sarah blushed, and he wanted to kick himself for embarrassing her. “Amelia was kind enough to lend me some dresses. But my lady’s maid has taken my measurements and will take them to the dressmaker’s. Although I don’t see the need,” she said with a bitter smile.
Ben shook his head. “Nonsense, Sarah. You deserve everything good in the world. Now, I was just telling Ben that he is the cheeriest soul in the world, and he is always a bright spot in dark times.”
This time it was Arthur who was in danger of blushing. He cleared his throat, trying to think of a response to that when Lady Sarah replied, “Yes, Lord Brighton has always been very cheerful. That is true.”
“Please, we have known each other a long time, and our families are soon to be bound together. You are like a sister to Ben, and Ben is like a brother to me. Will you not call me Arthur?”
Sarah’s lips parted, and she blinked at Arthur in surprise. “If you wish,” she said hesitantly. “Arthur.”
Arthur waited expectantly, hoping to hear her say that he might call her Sarah, but that did not occur. He was surprised at how much that disappointed him.
Instead of hearing those sweet words, Arthur saw the butler arrive in the room once more and say, “Dinner is served.”
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