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Chapter 1

Lendenbarrow, 1811

“I am soon to leave for school,” Elias said as he exhaled deeply and flopped upon the stone bench beside her. It was soon Michaelmas, the return to school for both of them. Lessons for her would continue at home on Sutton Street with Master Davies, while Elias would leave for Cambridge to begin his studies.

“Already? How droll,” Helena whined. “With you gone, I will have no one to talk to.”

“You have your sister.”

She sighed once more. “The only thing Beatrice ever wants to speak of is a husband. What one should look for? What he should look like? Whom she would like and, of course, how much he should earn. All very boring.”

She kicked at the earth beneath her feet, the green grass now somewhat browned due to the delayed rains that usually kept Lendenbarrow lush year-round. Unusual weather. She hated unusual weather.

Helena hated anything that obstructed her fun and the abysmal heat was forcing her to sit when she wanted to run. Her mother wouldn’t hear of her doing something as unladylike as perspiring.

“Don’t you want to marry?” Elias chuckled. “I thought all women wanted to marry.”

“I am not yet a woman,” Helena protested. “And if becoming one means I have to lose all sense and can only think of marriage then I would rather not become one.” She huffed and folded her arms over her chest. “Why do you insist on vexing me?”

“You make it so easy,” he teased as he took a hand to her chin and turned her face to him. “You must really learn to control your emotions. I was just asking a simple question. It shouldn’t unsettle you so.”

His brown eyes were so serene. Nothing ever seemed to shake him. Elias always had a way of calming her, no matter how upset she may be. She felt the tension ease from her limbs and her arms slowly unfolded and settled in her lap.

“I know I am to marry one day. It’s the greatest thing a woman can achieve, a good marriage. But I do not know that I want to marry just anyone for that purpose.” Helena frowned as she looked at him. A small flutter rose and fell in her stomach.

“I know I am a girl of only fourteen, and I know nothing of love or marriage, but I do believe that it should be for more than just the right connections or for the sake of a title. Don’t you?”

The stillness in his gaze wavered as his eyes fluttered rapidly. He looked away from her and Helena was curious as to the reason. He was always so sure. Why did he not seem so now?

“Elias?”

“Yes,” he replied gently as he turned his gaze to her once more. “That is the ideal marriage, one based on love and mutual respect, but that is not always the case. I have to marry,” he stated.

“As the future Earl of Wismoth, I have to ensure the continuation of the family line. It’s what’s expected. Though I would like my marriage to be for love, I must resign myself to the fact that such a love may not be in my future. I have to do what is best.”

She groaned. She hated when he spoke of expectation and convention. What about feelings and heart? Were they not good enough to be considered and spoken of?

Helena was more often partial to the inclinations of her heart than the conventions of society, a fact that she was repeatedly reminded was not to be done. Elias was one of her constant reminders when he was home, and her mother and older sister took responsibility in his absence.

Helena looked at him sternly. “If you intend to sit beside me and only speak of responsibility, I shall leave you to do so alone,” she warned. She meant it.

If Elias was only going to go on about what was expected and not enjoy the moments they had before his departure for the university, she would leave him to it. He could see what boring things he could get himself into without her.

He smiled at her and chuckled. “You have such spirit for one so small.”

“I am not small. I may be younger than you by four years, but that does not make me small. You have the advantage of age to aid in your height. When I am older, I will be much taller, and elegant,” she assured.

“No doubt,” Elias agreed. “In the meantime, you are little.”

She frowned. Helena didn’t want to be little or to marry for the sake of position. She had very little say in either.

“I suppose if one had to marry, someone with a title would be the most logical. Even more so if he had wealth in his purse and an inclination to spend it,” she mused. “Let’s not speak of this further for I want to enjoy these last days. There is no telling when you will be back.”

Helena had no older brother. In many ways, Elias had filled that role for most of her life as their fathers were old schoolmates at Oxford.

Elias’s father because he was titled and needed the requisite education to prepare him for his role. Helena’s father because his father was a man of means who sought to educate his children to the best of his ability. They remained friends since that day and their respective families had become quite close.

Helena couldn’t help but study his features. Elias had changed so much during this last year. Yes, he had grown taller, that was to be expected, but now he also had longer sideburns. His dark brown hair was more neatly arranged over his forehead than before.

His face was fuller, manlier than the boy he had been. Even his straight nose seemed altered.

If Helena didn’t know better, she would’ve sworn that every inch of him had undergone some form of transformation. It was these changes that filled her with strange emotions. He had always been dear to her, but now there was something else, something she wasn’t sure of and couldn’t put a name to.

She only knew it caused her stomach to flop about inside her whenever he appeared.

“Why do you look so perplexed? Are you feeling unwell?” Elias interrupted her thoughts.

“I’m perfectly well, thank you. I was just considering what Hettie will make for tea today.”

“You always think of your stomach.”

“If I did not, who would?”

Elias laughed heartily. “I shall miss your ridiculous musings.”

“I shall miss you as well,” she sighed and threw her arms about his neck. “You have no idea how much.”

She could feel the tremble of his gentle laughter as he patted her back soothingly. “I shall not be gone long. A few more years and I will return permanently.”

“It is still too long,” she complained. “What shall I do without you?”

“What you have always done. We repeated this scene every time I returned to boarding school.”

“And we will keep repeating it until you no longer need to go anywhere.”

“Now I must say, be good. Study hard. Listen to your mother and father and learn to control your emotions. Say your prayers, be fair and honest, and we will see each other again soon.”

She squeezed him tighter. Why did this farewell, though early, seem different from the others? It felt as if he wasn’t going to come back.

“Here you two are,” Lord Wismoth, Elias’s father, declared as he emerged atop the small rise in the field that separated them from the house.

Elias released her immediately. “Was there some need, Father?”

“None, I was simply desirous of telling the two most affected parties my great news.”

“News?” Helena replied with a glint in her eyes. “What news?”

“The news of a ball at Balwell Manor.”

“Here?” she and Elias chorused, though her response was more in glee than questioning.

“Whatever for?” Elias continued.

“To celebrate. My son is going to university, wherewith God’s providence, he shall return a highly educated man. I believe it cause enough for celebration.”

“Indeed,” Helena agreed as she resisted the temptation to clap her hands like a child. Elias had scolded her on that habit on his last visit.

“I have four years yet,” Elias chuckled. “Your celebration is premature.”

“Never!” exclaimed Helena. “We all know you will earn your degree. If Lord Wismoth wishes to celebrate now, who are you to tell him otherwise?”

Her words amused her titled host. Since she was a child, two months of her year were spent at Balwell Manor, the seat of the Earl of Wismoth, and the most beautiful estate Helena had ever seen. Nestled amongst six miles round of grounds, a newly remodelled house, a lake for fishing, and a lovely grove of trees to hide away in.

It was Helena’s dream home. It was nothing like their house on Sutton Street, which had no grounds and no lake, and most definitely no trees, only a pleasant view of the square from the parlor window. When the sun was just right in the evening, she could see the tops of the trees from some nearby green place too far for her to go on her own.

“Have you found them, Walter?” her father’s voice called as soon as his greying head appeared upon the mound.

“Indeed I have, and I have informed them of the glad news.”

Her father’s expression faltered but he soon set it right. “You mean your idea for a ball?”

“Not an idea, Ambrose. There shall be a ball at Balwell Manor within a fortnight,” he assured. “We shall celebrate, and when my son returns, we shall celebrate the more, and when he finally completes his course of study, we shall really have a feast.”

Helena loved the sound of every word that was issuing from Lord Wismoth’s mouth. A reason to celebrate? Something other than talking about marriage? A chance to dance! Her heart trembled at the prospect.

“Father, I do not wish a ball,” said Elias. “I simply wish to enjoy my remaining days here in peace.”

“You will have many years of peace here, my son, but it is at this time in a man’s life that he comes to appreciate the opportunity to dance and rejoice in the successes of his children.” He sighed. “Your mother and I had wished for more children, but the Lord thought you enough.”

Helena remained silent as Lord Wismoth spoke but she was in complete agreement. Elias was a son that most envied. He was well-mannered, intelligent and well-spoken, not to mention handsome. Her sister often commented on his looks. Helena would never tell him, but Beatrice had long wished his attention would shift from one sister to the other.

Helena was glad that had never happened. Who would she have turned to then for her amusement? Who could tolerate her so well if not Elias?

“You should be inside,” her father chided. “What are you about out of doors all day? Have you no studies to be about?”

“No, Father. I did all of my required reading already.”

“I would not have permitted her to shirk her education, sir,” Elias affirmed. “Seeing Helena on the way to become a woman of dignity is important to me.”

“Is it now?” Lord Wismoth questioned.

“Indeed. She is like my own sister. Wouldn’t a brother wish for his sister to become a woman of grace and respectability?”

“I’m glad one of you is concerned with this,” Helena’s father replied as he gave her a sharp look. She quickly averted her eyes.

“Come, I think tea is ready,” she quickly suggested to change the subject.

“Tea?” Elias questioned with a smirk. He knew her devices too well.

She folded her hands demurely at her waist. “Yes, tea.”

 

 

Chapter 2

Lendenbarrow, 1815

“Where is she?” Elias laughed as he strode into the parlor at Balwell Manor. Mrs. Ruskin, the housekeeper, followed him.

“Miss Helena is about,” she mused.

Four years had passed since he was last home, four years of intense study to make him ready to take his place in his father’s business, and one day to fill his shoes. They were large shoes to fill.

However, in all that time, his one consolation was Helena. The first year he was unable to return home, she wrote him through tears. He knew by the smudged ink on the page that made her letter almost completely illegible.

The next year was better. After that, she took to writing him often, and he wrote her back. Her letters were often filled with news of her accomplishments, the annoying ways of her sister, and the new dresses her father had bought for her during the seasons.

In the last year or so, the form of her letters had changed, matured, though he didn’t expect that the girl who wrote them had done much of that.

She had always been explicitly against being conformed to the norms, and she was defiant enough to rebel against it for all eternity as she promised. He liked to think of her silly promises. They always made him laugh, no matter the difficulty he was facing.

He expected Helena to appear from behind a chair and bound towards him, but she wasn’t there. Her mother, Mary Leeson, was, however.

“Mrs. Leeson,” he stated in surprise as his eyes fell upon her. Elias quickly altered his manner with the appearance of the older woman and bowed in greeting. Helena’s mother was a kind woman, cheerful in disposition, and peaceable. She was the gentleness to her husband’s austerity.

She smiled upon seeing him. It seemed the old injury that plagued her had worsened, as she was only able to bend her knee slightly in curtsey. She crossed the room to embrace him maternally.

Mary Leeson had been a girl of nineteen when she fell from her horse and was crushed beneath the weight of the beast. It left her with a slight limp and limited mobility in her right leg.

“You look the part of the Viscount of Chatleton,” she said as she smiled at him warmly. “The boy who left Balwell is long gone, though it is good to see the man he has become. Your mother would be so proud.”

Her words stirred in his breast. Elias’ mother, Susan, Lady Wismoth, passed away when he was twelve. Though his father had done his best in raising him, it was Mrs. Leeson who had taken on the role no man could fill in his life. His father had never remarried. The Earl’s heart was forever attached to the wife he had lost and no other could ever replace her in his mind.

“It’s been too long,” Elias answered.

“Though I see some things have not changed in that time,” Mrs. Leeson commented as she stepped toward him. “You are now returned and already you are seeking my daughter.”

The pair maneuvered around the parlor to occupy two of the seats nearest the window. Elias laughed slightly as he answered. “You know me too well.”

“Helena has been your plaything since she was born,” Mrs. Leeson mused as she watched him. “Though you will find her much changed now. My daughter has surprised us all.”

“I do hate to contradict you in anything, Mrs. Leeson, but Helena cannot surprise me,” Elias insisted. “I know her as I know my own heart. She has been my heart since she was a child. She could not surprise me even if she tried. She will still be the rambunctious, opinionated girl I’ve always known. I will chastise her and soothe her hurts and set her right. It has always been our way.”

“Is that so?” a melodious voice uttered from behind him. Elias turned and found a young woman standing before him.

She was tall, her figure well-formed, her skin fair and her eyes the color of the fields after a good rain. Her light brown curls were neatly pinned atop her head. A ribbon held it in place with a bow over her left ear.

She stifled a laugh before she curtseyed. “Lord Chatleton.”

Elias rose to his feet. Thoughts stilled in his mind, and speech was utterly lost at the sight of her. Her mother was right. Helena was changed. He had come home expecting a girl and found none. Where had she gone? Who was the lady who stood before him now?

“I do believe you have done more than surprised him, Helena. I do believe you have shocked him,” Mrs. Leeson teased.

The sound of her voice returned Elias to his senses. He had forgotten himself and stood agape. He quickly bowed his head in greeting.

“Miss Helena,” he replied. It was odd hearing such a formal title on his lips. Helena had always been just that. Now, she was something more. Things had changed. She was no longer a girl, but a woman.

It was foolish to believe such a day would never come, but Elias had never considered it. She was a child. A girl who did not yet know the world but wanted to master it. It was a comfort to think that would never alter, that he could depend on her consistency.

“Did I not tell you that you would find her much changed?” Mrs. Leeson stated.

Elias took slow steps forward, unsure of how to respond to the woman he did not know. Four years ago, he would have swept her in his arms and spun her like a child. Now, he was at a loss. “Indeed, madam, you did.”

Helena laughed. She still had a pretty laugh and hid her teeth while doing so.

“That has not changed,” he commented finally.

“No, I still sorely love to laugh. Though I expect you will find other things about me altered. I hope you will approve of them.”

He looked her over in appreciation. “I dare say that I do. You are a lady now.”

She attempted to stifle her giggle as she looked to her mother and then returned her gaze to him. Such a gaze.

“I told you he would be surprised,” Helena told her mother.

“Did you?” Elias questioned.

“Helena has worked tirelessly to reflect the principles you instilled in her all those years ago. I do believe if it had not been for you, she would’ve run wild,” her mother mused. “Thankfully, we had you to keep her in check.”

“Mama,” Helena interjected. “I was not that bad. I did not run wild so much as I enjoyed the freedom of life. What is life if one can find no pleasure in it?”

Well said.

“I dare say you were that troublesome,” Elias countered. He turned his attention to her mother. “Though it was my pleasure, madam, to occupy her lest her desire for life lead her astray,” he mused. “We might have lost her to the trees.”

“You always had great patience with her,” Mrs. Leeson replied.

“She was a sister to me. I wished the best for her.”

“As I did you,” Helena answered. “I hope we have both received our wishes.”

Had he? Elias wasn’t sure. He had wanted her to become more refined, genteel, but the person before him was confusing his senses. She somewhat looked like the Helena he knew, but everything about her had changed.

Her hair was different, her lips fuller, her eyes brighter, her cheeks rosier. Had her neck always been so long and graceful as a swan? Had her movements been so light and delicate? When had this change transpired?

He found a desire in his heart to have been there to see it.

“Elias?” his father’s voice interrupted the strange silence that had fallen upon the room.

“Father,” Elias greeted as the Earl of Wismoth entered.

“At last,” the Earl called as he embraced him and patted his back approvingly. “It was time you were home. Everything is prepared.”

“Prepared?” Elias questioned.

“Did I not tell you that there would be such a celebration at Balwell Manor as has never been seen, once you returned with your letters?”

“Father, please, not a ball.” Elias hated social affairs. He had always preferred quiet contemplation and music and games for edification. He had since he was a child.

“Do you hear this, Miss Helena? He refuses us a ball, yet again,” his father stated as he turned to Helena.

Helena smiled sweetly. “He seems ever to wish to upset our plans,” she answered. “Especially when we have taken such pains to prepare them. I say he shall not have his way.”

There was the little rascal he knew, eager to dance and laugh. Her preference for social events often caused him to set aside his dislike of them, and as ever, adapt his mind to the thought of her pleasure over his own. He smiled.

“Is that so, Miss Helena?”

“It is,” she answered. “You are the guest of honor, my lord. I’m afraid your responsibility is to please your guests and not yourself.”

“Do not trouble yourself to argue,” the Earl replied. “He has no choice in the matter. We are going to celebrate and that’s the end of it,” his father declared cheerfully.

Elias had no desire to dampen the hopes and expectations of those gathered, but his own hopes had been for a quiet return to the familiar faces of those he loved and cared for. His eyes wandered toward Helena.

“Since I am overruled, I will ask after the whereabouts of Mr. Leeson and Miss Leeson.”

“Though my father and sister are both eager to welcome you home, my lord, they were called into town on some urgent affairs. I’m sorry to say but you will have to be content with our company alone for the time being.”

“I do not see that there could be an objection to that,” the Earl commented. “There is no better company to be had in the country than yours and your mother’s.”

“You are too kind, my lord,” Helena replied.

“The benefit is ours I assure you,” Mrs. Leeson added. “You have been good enough to welcome us to Balwell these many years.”

“My dear lady, that is because there was no better a mind than your husband. Of all the company to be found at Oxford, I could never find anyone who made more sense than your husband. The proof of it was in his choice of you for a wife.”

Elias watched as Mrs. Leeson, despite being the mother of two grown children, blushed at his father’s compliment.

Several moments passed as the two fell into conversation, leaving Elias and Helena to occupy themselves.

“How have you been?” he asked. He instantly thought the question ridiculous. It seemed not enough to ask for two people who had shared each other’s lives almost since birth. She had shared her every secret with him since childhood.

“I am very well,” she answered calmly. “And you?”

“Well. Yes, very well.”

“Did you enjoy your time at Cambridge?”

“Cambridge? What can be said? It was a good education and my years of tutelage were most educational.”

He sounded like a fool. What was wrong with him? He was usually so articulate but now he found himself tumbling over his words.

“I’m glad it was what you hoped. I’m glad you’re home.”

The smile that lingered on her lips was sweet. Her fingers fidgeted at her side slightly as if anxious. He wondered what affected her.

“I am very glad to be home. While Cambridge had many allurements, there were some things that could only be found at Balwell.”

“I agree. Balwell has a special take on my affections as well. It always has been my dream. I have never been happier than I have been while under this roof.”

“I am pleased to hear it,” Elias smiled. She returned the smile.

He was home at last.

 

 

Chapter 3

 “It will be such an event, Helena,” Beatrice happily commented over her sewing. They both sat in the parlor at Balwell Manor. “I heard the Duke of Everwick is to be there, and his son, the Marquess of Rosemoor.”

“I know,” Helena replied calmly. “I made the list.”

“That’s right,” Beatrice chortled. “I almost forgot the Earl had asked you to assist him.”

Helena looked up over the edge of her book. She was aware Beatrice had been hurt by the exclusion in the planning of the party, but she was away in Glimberton when the idea had been finalized. The Earl didn’t want to delay.

“What do you think?” Beatrice asked as she raised the cloth she was working on. Helena wasn’t entirely sure whether it was meant for a frame or maybe had a future as a cushion, but the needlework was neat and the pattern pretty.

“Lovely.”

“It is almost complete,” her sister informed. “I think it’s my best work yet.”

“I would agree,” Helena answered. “You are so much better at it than I.”

“That’s because your nose is always in a page and you are never working on improving yourself in other areas. You are an excellent reader, Helena, that cannot be denied, but I do wish you’d try to broaden your scope of interest.”

“I cannot help my affinity for the written word. It is a source of education and escape. Sewing cannot claim to be able to provide such a distraction, though it does add more beauty to the world.”

“You, my dear sister, are too much,” Beatrice teased as she swatted a hand at her playfully.

Helena’s nineteenth birthday was soon upon her. Beatrice was already twenty-two, and despite the best efforts by all, both remained unattached. There was more effort on Beatrice’s part to correct that particular problem than on Helena’s.

“Elias looks very well,” Beatrice commented absently.

“He certainly does,” Helena agreed. Her stomach flipped as she spoke the words. She’d spent the past four years of her life waiting for him to return. Now, he was finally here, and she found herself completely undone.

He had changed even more in the course of his absence. His appearance had improved and, with it, the effect it had on her, though she would never dare to utter it.

“He seems unattached,” Beatrice continued.

“Perhaps he is. We cannot know that.”

“Why? Did he say something?”

“No. Nothing. I just suppose that if he wasn’t unattached, he would’ve mentioned it in his letters, or at least to his father.”

“You’re right. Though it would be excellent if he wasn’t. A wedding would gather even greater society together and it would be something neither of us has ever had the privilege to experience.”

Her sister lived for moments to be social. Thankfully, their father’s business often gave them cause to entertain, though nothing could compare to the entertainment provided by the Earl. His affairs were those that attracted the best of the nobility and gentry. Their father’s only attracted the latter, with the Earl being the most noticeable exception.

“Bea, will you never stop looking for a husband?” Helena asked cautiously. Her sister’s desire for a husband had been a constant companion since she was old enough to think for herself. Her lack of one was a subject of some contention.

Her sister looked at her calmly. “You never know.”

Helena’s brow furrowed. What a curious response. She did think to press the matter, but at that very moment, the sound of jovial voices burst into the room.

It was Elias and a small group of male companions, some of which she recognized. They were all between the ages of twenty-two and thirty, and were laughing animatedly.

“I beg your pardon,” Henry Thatcher stated upon seeing the two girls. He was Elias’ oldest friend and the next Viscount of Dornsby.

Beatrice and Helena both set aside their respite and stood to greet the company. Each gave their respective greetings. There were six of them in all.

“Ladies, we must apologize for our ungallant entry,” Elias said jovially.

“We were reacquainting ourselves with this old boy,” Thom Wickle replied. He was a clerk in her father’s company, Leeson’s Goldsmith & Jewellers. Her father was the fourth Leeson to manage the company and thus far the most successful, which was something of note given her grandfather had earned in excess of forty thousand pounds a year.

“How do the lovely Miss Leeson and Miss Helena fare?” Winston Bell, Baron Glourich, asked. He was another of Elias’ old friends. It had never occurred to Helena how many of the nobility were of their acquaintance due to their connection to the Repington family.

“We are very well, my lord,” Beatrice replied politely. “If you require the room, we would be happy to make it available to you.”

Helena’s heart stopped at the thought as she kept her eyes on Elias. He seemed equally occupied with looking at her. She didn’t wish to leave.

“That will not be necessary,” Elias said calmly. “This room is quite large enough for us to share, is it not?”

“Quite so,” Mr. Thatcher agreed. “We can talk business while the ladies continue their enjoyments.”

Helena smiled thankfully as the men agreed to the arrangement and positioned themselves comfortably on the other side of the parlor. She and Beatrice returned to their reading and sewing.

The men spoke in continued animation, though more subdued than when they entered. While Helena tried not to listen, she couldn’t help the wandering of her eyes.

She found, whenever the opportunity arose, they looked up in search of Elias. On occasion, she found his eyes met hers. Other times it was Mr. Wickle’s. Their seats were in line with her own making them the two most visible.

“Did you hear?” Mr. Wickle asked.

“Hear what?” Elias questioned calmly.

“Mr. Leeson has had it on good authority that there is an investment opportunity with great prospects to be had in Italy.”

“What kind of investment?”

“I’m not entirely sure, but it promises great returns,” Mr. Wickle asserted.

“Speculation?” Elias asked in surprise. “I did not know that he had such interests.”

Helena’s ears were suddenly keenly attuned. Did he just say her father was speculating? She had never heard anything about it. She turned to Beatrice, whose brown eyes were staring back at her in equal shock. It was apparent that the information was a first to her hearing.

“Yes. He has invested quite a sum from my understanding. He has undertaken the investment for himself and a number of us within the company.”

“Are you sure it’s wise?” Baron Glourich questioned.

“If the returns are as substantial as you indicated, then the risk must be equally so if not higher,” Elias’ voice resonated with some concern. It troubled Helena’s heart. Elias was a man of business, and though her father was the same, he had no understanding of speculation, while Elias had.

“He says there are no worries in that. The investment is quite sound. He’s had his man in Italy look into it. Gentlemen, there is a fortune to be made for those with the heart to seek it,” Mr. Wickle continued.

Elias’ concerned gaze turned to her briefly and Helena’s heart quaked.

“I would like to see the reports,” Elias requested. “Before I would wager any of my fortunes, I would need to see what the investment presents.”

“That’s reasonable. I can see about it when I return to London after the ball.”

Helena smiled at the mention of the event. It was still two days hence but already the house was stirring with the excitement. From what she had overheard from the kitchen staff, the entirety of Lendenbarrow was in an uproar. The inns were filling up to capacity, the butchers were slaughtering extra meats for the event, and half the market’s produce had been procured.

“Helena?” Beatrice whispered. “Do you believe Mama is aware of this? Elias seems quite concerned.”

Helena shook her head. “I have never heard a word of it from her.”

“Should we speak of it?”

“And divulge that we were eavesdropping on others’ private conversation?”

“I suppose you’re right. Also, it would do us no good to cause problems between Mama and Father if she is unaware.”

“Indeed,” Helena agreed.

The conversation of both groups changed soon after, their focus shifting to the pleasures to be had at the upcoming ball. The young men were eager for the event. They complained of the hardships of study and work, and the need for a moment’s respite from the monotony.

Helena had returned to the enjoyment of her book when Baron Glourich’s voice resounded over her. “Are you ladies looking forward to the festivities?”

“Very much so,” she replied. “I have worked long and hard and I look forward to seeing my efforts rewarded.”

He looked at her in surprise. “Miss Helena, I wasn’t aware that you were involved in the planning.”

“My sister was particularly asked by the Earl,” Beatrice answered. “I can attest to the great pains undertaken in the effort.”

“Did you exert yourself on our friend’s behalf?” he mused.

“I did indeed,” Helena answered.

“Not that she ever complained,” her sister added. “She rather enjoyed the task from all I saw.”

Elias wandered over, and soon after the other gentlemen joined them.

“Elias, I do believe you owe this young lady your gratitude. She has painstakingly exerted herself on your behalf, and on that of us all.”

“Then I believe we all owe her our gratitude,” Mr. Wickle added. He smiled at Helena. “How shall we repay you?”

“I need no repayment,” Helena replied bashfully. “I did not do it for that.”

“You may not have, but I would see you compensated for your hard work,” Mr. Wickle continued. “Is there nothing you wish?”

She considered her answer carefully. “I would be most pleased to see you all enjoying yourselves in the evening. That would be satisfaction enough for me.”

“I do believe that is a reward easily given,” Baron Glourich agreed. “I expect your card of partners must be quite full.”

“No, my lord. I have been otherwise engaged to consider it as of yet.”

“And yours, Miss Leeson?” he asked Beatrice.

She smiled politely. “My card is not full, my lord.”

“Card or no card,” Mr. Wickle interrupted. “Given the efforts of Miss Helena on our behalf, and the availability of Miss Leeson for the evening, I dare say that each of us should offer the option of a dance in repayment for the work done.”

“That sounds quite agreeable,” Baron Glourich answered. “What say you, Lord Chatleton?”

“I say that between Thom and yourself you have planned our evening for us,” Elias mused. His eyes drifted toward Helena. “It should be an enjoyable one.”

She smiled. The day had not yet come and already she had six dances accounted for, which was very pleasing. She wondered which of the six Elias would request.

She had to admit she had hoped to dance with him. It had been many years since they last met, but their correspondence had been unwavering in that time. It only proved to endear him to her in an entirely new way. One that she had never dared share.

Her fondness for her friend had been reborn as the years progressed and she matured. She found her heart beat faster whenever she received one of his letters, as did her wish to see him. It was the reason she had been keen to assist the Earl in his plans. It was not so much for him as it was for Elias himself.

She wanted to give Elias something to commemorate his accomplishments and could find nothing more fitting, even in its somewhat selfish nature. She knew well he hated to dance. She loved it.

She also knew that, for her, he would concede defeat. He would force himself to enjoy the little pleasures he often persuaded himself were of little consequence.

Elias was always more occupied with responsibility than enjoying life. She had always seen it as her duty to help him in this regard. She hoped he would allow her to continue to do so.

 

 

Chapter 4

The house was alive as he had never seen it before. His father had kept his word. Tonight was to be a night to remember, a ball as never been witnessed in Balwell Manor history.

The guests arrived promptly, though several arrived early to assist in the preparation for the ball. It was all unnecessary. Helena had taken every detail into consideration and it was this care that impressed Elias most of all.

Supper was a grand occasion. The first course consisted of three dishes. The second of eight dishes, and the third ten. Each one was carefully prepared and perfectly executed. It was clear that the best ingredients had been procured for the occasion.

Balwell Manor boasted three large additional rooms, one of which had been transformed into the dining room to accommodate the party of forty families. Another had been turned into the ballroom, fully and elaborately decorated with beeswax candles. Some of the paintings had been moved for the most elegant effect. Helena had even seen to having the floors chalked for the occasion. Elias would never have imagined it.

The card room was occupied as the guests dispersed after the meal and began to prepare themselves for the dance, the highlight of the evening.

He hadn’t a moment to himself. Elias greeted his guests and then was forced into a continuous stream of conversation as he began to reacquaint himself with Lendenbarrow society. Dinner was a short respite as the conversation was limited to those closest to him. Unfortunately, Helena wasn’t of that number.

Elias was somewhat frustrated. Since his return, he hadn’t had a moment to speak with her without constant company. It made determining the changes in her more difficult, as was determining how they now affected him. Were his altered emotions due to their long separation or something more?

“Helena certainly looks lovely,” Thom commented as the group of six occupied a corner of the ballroom.

“She does indeed,” Frederick Porter replied.

“As does her sister,” Baron Glourich agreed.

“However, I do believe Helena is the more appealing,” Thom added.

Elias listened as his friends continued their discourse. It was natural for them to comment on the attractiveness of the women in their company. However, Elias refused to join them.

He couldn’t discuss Helena’s loveliness as he would that of any other woman. Though her charms and figure were not lost on him, she was not any other woman.

“I think they are about ready for the dance,” Baron Glourich commented.

“Who will be starting it?” Thom asked.

“I believe Helena, given the Earl has given her the position of distinction this evening.”

“She made a lovely hostess, did she not?” Frederick commented.

“Indeed, she did,” Baron Glourich agreed. “She has an easy grace and is quite charming.”

“Is she spoken for?” Frederick questioned.

Elias bristled. Spoken for? He turned his attention to his friend. “Why do you wish to know? What concern would it be to you?”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed the change in Helena since we last saw her. She is a lovely young woman and quite beautiful,” Baron Glourich defended. “Any man would take note. Look about you. Half the men here younger than forty have noticed her.”

“Yes, Lord Chatleton. Baron Glourich is right. She is the prettiest lady here this evening,” Thom added.

The group agreed. However, their shared opinion only served to make Elias more uneasy. Why were they saying this? She was always the little girl they joked about and treated as a sister and friend. He didn’t like them speaking about her as if she were a woman.

The thought struck him like a mallet. She was a woman. An eligible woman. The thought disturbed him. She was now someone men would look upon with interest, maybe even seek her hand.

“Who should be first?”

The comment drew his attention from the shock of his thoughts.

“I would offer, but I think it should be Elias,” Baron Glourich stated. “After all, he is the guest of honor.”

“What is it you’re planning for me?” Elias questioned.

“The dance is about ready. Helena will need a partner to start and as we each have promised to dance with her, we were deciding what should be the order.”

“I will be first,” Elias stated immediately. He hadn’t even given a thought to dancing before that moment, despite their agreement previously. Now he found he didn’t wish anyone to dance first with Helena beside himself.

“That is agreed. I will be next,” Baron Glourich replied. The others quickly followed suit determining which of the evening’s dances they would claim. Elias was no longer concerned.

He strode across the room purposefully. Helena’s gaze caught his eye as he approached her. She seemed to be waiting for him but Elias couldn’t be sure. What reason would she have to do so?

When she was a girl and in need of a partner, there was nothing that stopped her from seeking him out and taking him by the hand to join her on the dance floor. Elias had to admit he regretted that change.

The easiness of their former interactions was gone now. The world no longer saw him as a man and her a child, but as two adults. Now, there were formalities and expectations that had never existed before.

He bowed to her slightly. “Helena.”

She smiled at the gesture. “Your Lordship.”

“Please,” he said gently. “Have I not always been Elias to you? Are we not still old, dear friends?”

“Of course we are still friends,” she replied quickly. “But I was a girl then. I am a woman now. I must respect your position.”

Elias never thought to hear such words uttered from her lips. He’d taught her well.

“Given that you respect my position, I demand you call me Elias when it is just the two of us. I will respect your position on decorum. It is something we cannot escape, but I will not have ceremony causing tension between us. You have been dearer to me than a sister and I would not have that change because of the passage of time.”

“I would not wish that either. I am glad you spoke of it because it has been agonizing for me to address you in such a manner,” she laughed.

“Now that is settled,” he mused. “May I have the honor of the first dance?”

“You may,” she answered with a curtsey as he led her out on the floor. They got into position at the center of the room as Helena called the dance and the numbers.

Helena wore a gown of gold muslin sheathed in lace. Long, white silk gloves adorned her hands, and her hair sparkled with the ornaments dispersed throughout it. At her throat was a pretty pendant on a simple chain, which drew attention to the dress’s unobscured neckline. He quickly averted his eyes.

She was an angel on the dance floor. Helena took each turn with a grace and elegance incomparable to any woman he had ever seen. He found the more they danced, the more conflicted he felt. The more the image of the little girl began to fade from his mind.

“You surprise me,” she commented in a low voice for only his ears.

“How so?”

“You haven’t complained once about having to dance,” she mused.

He laughed. “Perhaps that has changed.”

“It would be good if it had, for you are a wonderful dancer. You have always been. That’s why I ever wanted to dance with you,” she informed.

“Is that why? I thought it because no one else would have you. They wished to save their toes,” he teased.

“I have never stepped on anyone’s toes,” she replied with a smirk. “If I had, I should’ve crushed yours to pieces for the number of times I made you dance with me.”

“You see, I was prepared and carefully averted danger,” he continued to joke.

“If I was such a fright to dance with, why did you ask me this time? You must admit it that it is a first.”

He wasn’t sure how to answer. He couldn’t very well tell her what had been said and the effect it had on him that had prompted his desire to see her on the dance floor. He looked to his friends momentarily.

“You were taking so long to get the dancing started, I thought it best to help you along.”

“I see. Then I am grateful for your help,” she answered. “And you were in a hurry to dance?”

“I was thinking of the happiness of the guests. Was it not you who told me that this evening was for their pleasure and not my own?”

“Yes, but I would not want you so put out as to suppress your own enjoyment.”

“You need not fear. I am quite content where I am.”

A blush rose up to Helena’s cheeks. The rosy color warmed his heart at the sight. When had she become so beautiful?

“We haven’t had a moment to talk,” he said a few moments later.

“No. It has been a very busy time for you since your return.”

“If you would permit, and knowing you have committed yourself to at least five more dances, would you join me for a walk later?”

“It would be my pleasure,” she answered with a smile as they continued to move about the floor.

The first dance ended too quickly in Elias’s mind, and he was forced to give Helena’s hand to Baron Glourich, who was eagerly awaiting his chance. One after another, Elias watched as his friends took a turn about the floor with Helena. He found himself consumed with questions as he watched her smiles and laughter with each of them.

What were they saying that amused her so? Was she particularly fond of them? Was there someone else to which she held some affection? He had never had such thoughts before and now he found himself tormented by them.

The moment the last of his friends had danced, Elias positioned himself to prevent any other prospective partners from intervening. If they asked, she could not refuse, and by the looks on the faces of the young men in the party, there were a number who wished the opportunity. They would have to wait.

Elias escorted Helena to the balcony. A few of the guests lined the stone rail as they sipped their drinks and talked.

The moon was full overhead. Its pale blue light illuminated the grounds ethereally.

“It is quite beautiful,” Helena commented as she looked out. Elias found that though he agreed, it was not the grounds that had his eye.

“You are quite changed,” he commented distractedly.

Helena turned to him, a small smile on her face. “I am not so changed.”

“I almost didn’t know you. I looked on you the day I returned and tried to place where I knew you.”

“You did look rather surprised,” she answered.

“How could I not have been? I had come to find my little sister and found her nowhere in sight.”

“That is all I have ever been,” she said somewhat hesitantly.

Until his return, he would have said that yes, it was so, but now he couldn’t give such an answer.

“Is it not agreeable to be my sister?”

“Of course it is. I have loved you like a brother most of my life.”

Elias noted her careful use of words and the inability of her eyes to meet his.

“You have enchanted the entire party,” he stated. “I think every woman wished to be you tonight, and every man wished to dance with you.”

“That is of little consequence to me,” she replied.

“Is it? Then what is of consequence?”

“Your happiness.”

Her words pressed upon him like a head on a pillow. “Does it mean that much to you?”

“It does.”

“Be at ease then,” he answered. “At this moment I am very happy.”

 

 

Chapter 5

Calm returned to Balwell. The ball was now several days passed, though it was still the talk of the parish. Helena expected that would continue for some time to come, but she was otherwise occupied. Elias had her full attention.

They were seated for breakfast at Balwell Manor. The Earl was sitting at the head of the table, while her father assumed the seat at the other end. He was occupied with the newspaper and Beatrice, while her mother and the Earl were deep in conversation over the prospects of him spending a few days at Sutton Street with them in the fall.

Visits from the Earl of Wismoth meant other visitors were sure to follow. It was an inevitability and, with it, hosting a great many parties would follow. That took planning, and the pair were already making arrangements. Her father never preoccupied himself with the trivialities of it all. He simply maximized on the ends.

“Would you like to take a walk in the gardens after breakfast? Goring tells me the roses are particularly lovely at this time,” Elias whispered to her.

“I would love that,” she answered.

She was growing quite accustomed to his increased attention. It was like when she was a girl and there was nothing between them but their affections. However, this was different. The affection she felt was different. Helena wasn’t certain, but she felt sure Elias felt it too.

“Afterward I have to go into town, to see Mr. Richard Panet. He has commissioned some new guns and wishes me to look at them. He also has a new pointer for me to look at.”

“A dog?” Helena questioned. “There hasn’t been a dog here since I was fifteen and Chatsworth died.”

He smiled. “I am home now. That must change.”

Elias always had a fondness for dogs. Chatsworth, a majestic greyhound, had been in the family since before she had come to know them. His death was a bitter loss. Before him were the Dalmatians, Pepper and Rudley.

“It would be good for you to have them. They will keep you busy with the hunt and entertain you once I am gone,” Helena said with some disappointment. The time for their return to Sutton Street was quickly approaching.

Elias’s expression fell, as if the mention of their inevitable separation was unpleasant to him as well.

“Perhaps,” he answered. “But there is plenty of time before you have to return to London. Perhaps my father will have cause to ask you and your family to stay a while longer. It has been a very long time since I have enjoyed your company, and a week seems hardly enough to renew our acquaintance as we ought.”

Helena’s heart fluttered at the suggestion. “Father has business in town, but I know of no reason why Mother, Beatrice, and I could not stay a while longer.”

He smiled. The corners of this thin lips curled upward, and dimples appeared on his cheeks. “It’s settled then. I will broach the subject with my father this evening.”

A clatter at the far end of the table stole their attention. All eyes turned to find Helena’s father on his feet, a look of absolute horror marring his face. He looked pale, his eyes large and his mouth agape.

“Father, what is it?” Beatrice asked as she stood beside him in concern.

“It can’t be,” he murmured. “It simply can’t.”

Her father’s distress was upsetting her. Helena got to her feet but, no sooner had she done so, that her father turned from the table, grabbed his chest, and collapsed to the floor, sending his dining chair flying in the opposite direction. Her mother screamed.

“Father!” Helena cried.

Elias was to him in an instant. Helena was right behind him, as were the rest of the table. Elias felt his neck and held his hand beneath his nose. “He’s breathing.”

“Goring, fetch a physician!” the Earl called. His manservant ran from the room immediately, but Helena’s eyes couldn’t leave her father.

She dropped to her knees beside him, her hand felt his forehead. It was clammy to the touch.

“Ambrose?” her mother called panicked. “Ambrose!”

“Here, Mother,” Beatrice answered as she moved to comfort her distress.

“Father,” Helena continued to call. She hoped he would open his eyes but he didn’t.

“I think we should get him to his room,” Elias suggested.

Helena looked at him with fear in her eyes. Her father was their entire world. Losing him would be a blow that she did not wish to imagine.

“I will look after him,” Elias assured. He draped her father’s limp arm around his neck as the Earl took hold of the other. They hoisted her father up. He made no effort to assist them as they lifted him from the room.

What had happened?

Helena reached for the discarded newspaper and turned it over. There, in bold letters, was the news of the collapse of a prestigious Italian finance house. Her heart went cold and her hands trembled.

“Helena, what is it?” Beatrice asked.

She looked at her sister and her mother, who remained in her chair too upset to be of use to herself. They needed to get her to bed before she too collapsed.

“Helena?” her sister insisted.

“The investment,” she started. “It is reported that the company has gone bankrupt.”

 “Good Lord,” Beatrice answered. Her eyes turned to the door that their father had been taken through. “How much do you suppose?”

“What investment?” their mother asked.

Helena shook her head at Beatrice. She didn’t wish to speak about this further, especially with their mother in the state she was in.

“Nothing, Mother. No need to trouble yourself,” her sister soothed.

“Let’s go see after Father,” Helena suggested. She folded the paper and took it with her lest her mother sought to discover the news for herself. She had the first servant she met dispose of it.

When they arrived at her father’s room, Elias had already had him in bed. He was still unresponsive and concern wore heavily on the face of the two men watching over him. They turned to them upon their entry.

“How is he?” Helena asked as she rushed to her father’s side.

“The same.” Elias turned to her mother. “Are you quite well?”

“What has happened to him?” she asked as she walked across the room and sat on her husband’s side.

“I do not know. It may have been a shock caused by whatever he read. It may even have been his heart. I cannot say.”

“How long will the physician take to get here?” Helena asked.

“He is not far off,” the Earl replied. “Twenty minutes, with a fast horse.”

She nodded. It was better than expected. Lendenbarrow was a vast county, and the grounds around Balwell Manor alone quite extensive. It was some distance between one property and the next.

It was clear the physician was not in possession of a fast horse. Two hours after he was summoned, he finally arrived. Dr. Burroughs was a tall, thin man with an equally thin moustache and large spectacles. Despite his somewhat amusing appearance and fondness for bright colors, he was the best physician to be found in the county.

Helena did her best to comfort her mother. Beatrice did also, but she had not the constitution for the sick room. She was concerned for their father. It was clear by her expression, but she couldn’t face the possibilities of what his current state meant for them all. It would be on Helena’s shoulders to support them all emotionally until their father was strong enough.

Dr. Burroughs emerged from the room with a stern look on his face. Helena immediately went to him. The Earl had been called away, but Elias had cancelled his appointment in order to stay with them. He was by her side a second later.

“How is he, Doctor?”

“He’s resting.”

“What happened?” Elias asked.

“Mr. Leeson has received quite a shock. One that was more than his heart could take. It has left him very weakened.”

“What can I do?” Helena asked.

“Rest is your father’s best medicine. Though I would suggest that he be kept away from any topic which may upset him. His heart may not be able to take it, and I’m afraid, the results could be fatal.”

It felt as if icy fingers had coiled around her heart. Fatal? Helena took a deep breath as her mother whimpered behind her. She could hear Beatrice’s voice attempting to calm her.

“I will take care of him,” Helena replied. “Thank you so much for coming, sir.”

“I am available whenever you need. If Mr. Leeson’s condition should worsen, or there is any sign of laboured breathing, please summon me immediately.”

“We will do that, Doctor,” Elias answered. “Let me see you out.”

Helena watched them go before turning to the door. She breathed deeply to calm herself. Her father was on the other side, weakened by the news of the collapse of his fortunes, the extent of which they were still unsure. She could not appear before him with an expression of fear or unease. She needed to be his strength. All of their strength.

She turned the handle softly. She didn’t wish to wake him if he were still asleep. The room was large, with a magnificent four-poster bed at its center. A cedar dressing table stood at its right and a writing desk to the left. She could see the remnants of her father’s papers scattered about.

Rich crimson curtains lined either side of the bed, completely concealing her father in darkness. The drapes had been partially closed, further casting shadows across her father’s bed. Helena crossed the room and came to sit beside him. His eyes were closed. His breathing even. He was asleep.

She took his hand in hers. His was cold. She rubbed the back of his knuckles gently, then pressed his fingers to her lips and blew upon them.

“You’re cold, Father,” she said softly as she fluffed the blankets around him.

Tears stung her eyes as she watched him. Her father was the man she admired most in life. The efforts he took for their comforts. The love and attention he had always shown them made him the best of men in her eyes. She had never considered losing him. Now, that was the reality that was foremost in her mind.

“The doctor says you will be well with some rest,” she continued. “I could’ve told him that. You have never been a man to stay in his bed during illness. Illness always seems to avoid you, as if it knows that it cannot stop there, therefore, its efforts are wasted.”

Thoughts plagued her as she sat quietly, watching. How much had he speculated? How great was the calamity to be faced once he woke? Fear tugged at her heart. What if it was significant? What if he could not take the truth of it?

Do not think such things. He will be alright. He has to be.

Helena tried to convince herself, but she was failing. In all her life, she had never seen her father discomposed. Today, he had surpassed the state into complete collapse.

It must be significant.

Mr. Winslow, the family’s solicitor, would have to be contacted as soon as possible. He would know best what was to be done. She would do so as soon as possible, but for the moment, her greatest comfort was at her father’s side.

The door opened softly behind her. Helena looked over her shoulder to find Elias. He walked slowly toward her.

“Your mother has taken to her bed,” he informed. “Your sister is seeing to her.”

“Heaven help us.”

He laid his hand upon her shoulder and squeezed gently. “I’m here.”

 

 

Chapter 6

The news of the collapse had spread rapidly. Elias was shocked by the number of people who had bought into Mr. Leeson’s prophecies for the rewards of the investment. Elias, thankfully, hadn’t been one of them, but a number of those of his association had.

Due diligence was something that Elias was particular about. He’d received the report on the investment a few days after Thom’s enthusiastic promotion of it. Elias had taken his time to review the contents, and found more than one area that gave him pause.

Something wasn’t quite right about the prospected returns and the type of investment. Returns correlated with risk, and the potential risk he saw in the investment didn’t equate to the return being quoted. The risks were high, but the returns were exceedingly so.

“How is Ambrose?” Lord Wismoth asked as Elias walked into his study. The high spirits of the previous days had been entirely eclipsed by the turn of fortunes for the Leeson family. Mrs. Leeson was never seen downstairs. She remained cloistered in Beatrice’s room, while her eldest shared with Helena.

“There’s been little change, Father. Helena watches over him day and night, but he has said little and moved less,” Elias informed as he lowered himself in the chair across from his father’s desk.

“There must be something we can do. It pains me to see them so distressed and my friend so weakened by this unfortunate turn of events.”

“I share your concern, Father, but what can we do? We do not yet know the extent of their loss, and until Mr. Leeson is strong enough, it is doubtful we shall.”

They were painful words to utter, but they couldn’t be avoided. It was the truth that Helena and her family now had to face. The world as they knew it no longer stood, and the ground beneath them had given way. How far? Only time would tell.

Their conversation was disturbed by a knock at the door. Mrs. Ruskin entered with a small smile on her face. “Mr. Wickle and his party are here. Should I see them in?”

“Have them meet us in the billiard room,” Elias answered as he turned to her. “We shall be there shortly.”

“Yes, my lord,” Mrs. Ruskin nodded her head and turned out of the room.

“Have your friends said much about this affair?” Lord Wismoth asked.

Elias sighed. “Not that it has reached my ears, but I expect today I will receive more than my share of it. Mr. Leeson took the money of many men of our shared acquaintance. We cannot avoid the subject.”

“Let us see that we do not become the center of a war,” the Earl cautioned. “It is never a good place to be, standing in the middle of fighting parties, especially when allegiances lie on both ends.”

Elias nodded. His father was right. The sheer number of those affected was more than could be measured, but so was the affection and connection they shared with the Leeson family these many years. It was an impossible position to be in, one that Elias loathed facing but had no choice in the matter.

“There must be something we can do,” he insisted with some frustration.

“We must handle the matter delicately. We certainly cannot divulge that the Leesons are still here.”

“We would have a mob at our door if it was known,” Elias agreed.

His father nodded. “Which is why I have asked the staff to remain silent about this matter, and to ensure that Helena and her family remained above stairs until our guests are gone.”

Elias exhaled slowly as he stood. He smoothed the collar of his shirt. “Our friends await.”

The Earl stood. “Let us not keep them.”

The pair made their way to the billiard room in silence. When they arrived, they found Thom and his company already enjoying brandies and cigars.

“We’re sorry, my Lord Chatleton, but we’ve started without you,” Baron Glourich said the moment Elias entered. His casual manner altered the moment the Earl entered the room. He stood up straight and levelled his tone. “Your Lordship. I wasn’t aware that we would have the privilege of your company this afternoon.”

“I am sorry to intrude but I thought it remiss of me not to welcome you back to Balwell.”

“No intrusion at all, my lord,” Thom replied. “It is your own, and it is us who were remiss in greeting you.”

“Such formalities amongst friends can be overlooked,” the Earl replied. “Might I join you?”

“You, my lord?” Thom queried. “I have never imagined you a man who played.”

The Earl laughed. “In my youth, I was quite the player. Would you care to make a wager?”

“Father,” Elias cautioned. “They will take advantage of you.”

“See here, do you see the confidence my own son has in me,” he mused.

Baron Glourich smiled. “I will take that wager, my lord.”

“Can we get you a drink, Your Lordship?” Thom asked.

“Just some water for me,” the Earl replied. “It is too early in the day for me.”

Elias smiled to himself. It was amazing how his father’s presence, even after so many years, still caused his friends to become boys. Suddenly the bold and brash conversation turned passive. Not for long, Elias was sure. It would take them a few drinks more and the right conversation to return to themselves and forget that the Earl was even present.

His thought proved more accurate than he imagined, and much sooner than he’d anticipated, his friends were once again themselves.

Laughter filled the room as Baron Glourich and his father engaged in their third round. Baron Glourich had been alleviated of two pounds thus far, and if the game continued on its present course, it would soon be three.

“Why don’t you give up, friend?” Elias questioned. “Would you lose your fortune to my father?”

“I will not concede defeat until the game has been won,” Baron Glourich answered jovially.

“You are a gambler,” Thom teased.

“No, you are,” Baron Glourich countered. “You made that investment. That was gambling. You should’ve known better.”

Elias wished Baron Glourich hadn’t said anything, but the subject had been broached and there was no turning back.

“It wasn’t a gamble,” Thom replied angrily. “I was given information from someone I believed above reproach and knowledgeable in these matters. He assured me, and many of us, that the investment was sound. What did I know of it?”

“You should’ve taken a hint from Elias. He wasn’t so easily won by your earnest enthusiasm.”

His father turned to him.

“Gentlemen, let’s get back to the game,” he urged. Thom would have none of it.

“I was robbed! Do you have any idea how much I lost? How much we all lost? Tens of thousands of pounds. Robert Riddle lost his life’s savings. Malcolm Tate as well. Who knows how many others lost their shirts due to Ambrose Leeson’s poor judgment.”

Frederick Porter, who had remained silent up to that point interjected, “It could’ve all been avoided if you’d waited a while. It was your eagerness for a quick profit.”

“Are you trying to blame us for this?” Thom bellowed. “My mother has lost ten thousand pounds because of him.”

“I am sorry for your mother, but a great many people lost a great deal,” Frederick continued. “All of it due to a lack of prudence and sound judgment.”

Though Elias appreciated Frederick’s view and his willingness to assign blame to the proper parties, he did wish he’d chosen an alternate means of expressing his beliefs. Presently, he was only stoking the fire of Thom’s anger.

“Lack of judgment? Prudence?” Thom scoffed. “Tell me if you see a lack in judgment when all that is presented seems sound. Do you think I would’ve involved my mother if I had any inclination that there was something amiss?”

“Of course not,” Baron Glourich replied. “None of us believe that. The whole investment was a farce.”

It was a difficult thing to hear his friend so enraged and hurt, but it didn’t erase the fact that the problem was not entirely of Mr. Leeson’s doing.

Elias stepped toward Thom. “Thom,” he said calmly as he laid a hand gently on his shoulder.

His friend breathed deeply. Elias could see the anger in his eyes. Even as he tried to calm himself, it lingered. He squeezed his shoulder to assure him. It would be all right. In time, this would all be forgotten, but for the moment, they had to make the best of it.

“Forgive me, gentlemen. I forgot myself for a moment,” Thom replied as he regained his composure. He set his glass aside. “Perhaps I have indulged too much this evening.”

“It is my fault,” Frederick answered. “I shouldn’t have said what I did.”

“There is no fault for speaking truth,” Thom answered. “I was eager, as we all were, and the investment seemed sound. We had faith in Mr. Leeson and his words. We made a mistake.”

“Speculation is an uncertain business not for the faint of heart,” Elias’s father stated from where he stood across the room. “One can never be sure of the outcome.”

Elias had almost forgotten his presence in the tumult of Thom’s outburst.

“Would you excuse me, gentlemen?” Elias said.

“Of course,” his friends replied almost in unison.

Elias turned to his father. He would leave the placating to him for the moment. Elias needed some air.

He walked from the billiard room quickly, but took his time once he was outside. He didn’t need to rush his return. The longer he had to allow his father to calm the emotions he had just left behind, the better.

Elias’s feet took him where they would. His mind was full. The anger of his friend and the illness of a man he considered an uncle plagued his mind. Then, there was Helena.

He hadn’t realized where he was until the sound of weeping caught his ears. He looked about him, and there in the shadow of the stairs, was Helena herself.

“Helena?” he called as he rushed to her aid. He held her. “Helena, what is the matter? Is it your father?”

She sobbed into his chest. “His condition is unchanged. My mother can’t stop crying and Beatrice is beside herself with worry. I’m trying to be strong, but I’m weak,” she admitted.

“Here,” he said as he ushered her to the stairs and helped her sit. His arm wound around her shoulder as she rested against his chest. He could smell the fragrance of her hair. It was lavender from the flowers Mrs. Ruskin had the maid adding to the basin water in their rooms every morning.

“What are we to do?” she asked bitterly. “What if Father doesn’t recover? What if Mother –”

“Hush,” Elias said gently. His heart wrenched at the sound of her tears. It had been years since she had cause to weep upon his shoulder. Then she had been a girl, but now she was the woman who stirred emotions in him that he had never felt before.

She fit against him naturally. He could feel the slenderness of her shoulders and the erratic nature of her breaths. Elias wanted to protect her. He wanted to help her.

“Your father will recover, and your mother will endure. I assure you. I will see to it. You and Beatrice are not alone. My father and I will support you however we can.”

“Turn back the clocks and erase all of this?” she pleaded. “Return my life to what it was?”

Elias couldn’t answer. He didn’t have that power, as much as he wished he did. However, he could do something about the future. He would find a way to solve her family’s problems.

“Not even the Lord changes what has already passed. However, the future can be altered and fortunes changed. I do not know what I might do, but I assure you, that I will do my all in your service.”

His decision was made.

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