Prologue

Winter 1810

Helena Nicholson, daughter of the earl of Tambridge, thought her heart would positively burst from her chest for it was beating so hard. She willed it to be quiet so she could better hear what was being said behind the closed door.

It didn’t work. All she could hear was the vague murmuring of voices, low and rapid. This conversation could change the course of her entire life, and she could only hope and pray her father would look favorably upon George, the young man she had fallen head over heels in love with.

On her sixteenth birthday, he had proposed to her, albeit unofficially, and now, he had finally come to ask her father for her hand. How she dearly wished she could hear the conversation, to know what they were saying. The meeting had gone on some time though, and she thought that could only be a positive thing.

Please, Papa. Say yes to him.

Helena was a shy, nervous young thing, and life had not yet knocked the hope and ambition from her. She was of average height, slim but shapely, and blooming into a womanly figure. Her dark hair, rich and midnight black, tumbled in loose curls around the pins that held it to the back of her head, and her bright hazel eyes twinkled with all that was to come.

She adored books and art, opera and theater, but most of all, she loved to love. She was sensitive and romantic, her head following where her heart led, and she had an unshakeable faith in love. Since she had met George Harrison, the handsome sailor, that belief had only strengthened.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then took a step closer to the door of her father’s study and pressed her ear against it. Though she couldn’t make out any of the words, she could hear their tones, and she was horrified to realize the tone was an angry one, not a happy one.

Please, Papa!

Lord Tambridge was both strict and restrictive as a father, and Helena had given George as much advice as she could before this meeting. He was going to ask him for Helena’s hand as soon as she turned eighteen, and she had warned him to be respectful and kind, polite and humble in order to appeal to the earl’s condescending sensibilities.

Helena heard a chair scrape back across the floor and she gasped, jumping from her position by the door and leaping across the hallway. Her eyes were wide, and her heart, to her amazement, raced even faster, even harder. That couldn’t be good; it really couldn’t.

She stared at the door, her whole-body tense and taut, as the shouting began. It didn’t last long, for moments later, the door was yanked open and George tottered out, red-faced. He merely glanced at Helena as she watched him, shoulders hunched and head down, as he disappeared down the corridor, out of the house.

And out of my life.

She watched long after he had disappeared, a lump building in her throat, until finally she looked to the doorway. Her father was standing there, leaning against the frame, his nostrils flaring with his heavy breath. He looked furious, and Helena instinctively took a step backwards, pressing herself against the wall, the stone cool beneath the palms of her hands.

She held her breath, not daring to speak, while her father glared at her. That moment felt like forever, until he spoke. His voice was a low, dissatisfied growl that reached into her very core and squeezed at her heart.

“You have brought shame on this family, Helena Nicholson.”

“But Papa—”

“But nothing, Helena,” he said, his voice rising in volume. “How dare you carry on with a man so woefully beneath your status? You are a nobleman’s daughter, not a mere sailor’s wife!”

Helena swallowed down the lump in her throat and, despite her fear at his rage, decided she would not let it go. She loved George too much for her to simply forget the whole thing.

“I understand, Papa, but George and I—”

“Mr. Harrison to you!” Lord Tambridge roared, clearly infuriated by Helena’s familiarity.

“Mr. Harrison and I love each other,” Helena said, hoping the formality would please him. It did not. Rather, he scoffed, shaking his head.

“Love! And tell me, child, what has love to do with anything?”

“Love is everything,” she insisted. “How can I possibly consider a marriage without love?”

“You are not yet a woman and already, you speak as though you know of such things. How dare you think you know better than me?”

Helena took in a deep breath and then tried once more. “I cannot live without love, Papa, and neither do I need to. George loves me, and he can offer me a lot more besides.”

The earl laughed this time, the sound loud and cruel as it rang out around the corridor. “He is a commoner, Helena! He can offer you nothing, and I will die before you marry a man like him.” As he spat the words, spittle flew from his mouth, his face twisted into a sneer.

Helena let out a cry of agony. “But Papa! Why can you not understand?”

His eyes burned into her, and she pushed her lips together so hard they turned white. “I understand perfectly well,” he said, quieter and calmer now. “I understand now that you are incapable of being left alone or making decisions for yourself. I understand that I need to take a tighter control of your life.”

Helena whimpered through her tense lips, but she didn’t dare speak again. And then her father said the thing he knew always hurt her most.

“You have disappointed me more than you can ever know, Helena. Now get out of my sight.”

With that, she turned and fled, running down the corridor with her skirt flying out behind her. She ran through the labyrinthine hallways and staircases until she came to her own bedchamber, the only place she felt truly at peace—other than in George’s company.

She burst through the door, slamming it closed without even trying, and then fell to her knees and sobbed, her head in her hands. She remained like that until her legs turned numb and she had drained herself of energy almost entirely.

When the tears stopped and the melancholy settled in the pit of her stomach, she climbed to her feet and wandered to her writing desk. She pulled open the drawer, wood screeching against wood, and peered inside at the pile of letters.

“Oh, my love,” she muttered and let herself fall onto the stool. “Father says he will die before I can marry you, but I will die if I do not.”

She pulled out the pile of letters and opened them one by one, reading each one in turn. It was both beautiful and painful, bittersweet and heart-wrenching. He was the love of her life, and he always would be, no matter what her father said or did.

In that second, she felt a resurgence of energy. She would find a way to persuade her father. He was a good man at heart, she knew, even if he was loath to show it often. And she was certain he only wanted the best for her. He wouldn’t want to see her so dreadfully unhappy; he would, she prayed, see how important George was to her and to the rest of her life.

She found the last letter he wrote to her and she read it through once again, then held it to her chest and let the love flow through her. In it, he told her how much he adored her, how he couldn’t bear to be away from her for even a minute, how he wanted her as his wife so they could spend the rest of their lives together.

“We will be together, my love,” she whispered. “No matter what happens, and no matter how long it takes. We will be together. I promise you that.”

She put the remaining letters back into the drawer and closed it, and then she walked over to her bed and slipped this last and most precious of letters under her pillow. She wanted to sleep with his words that night. And then she rang the bell for her maid.

“Lady Helena, you called?” the lady’s maid said as she popped her head around the door.

“Yes, Mary. I wish to go to bed,” Helena said. “Will you help me into my nightgown?”

“Of course, my lady!” Mary said, moving into the room proper and letting the door close behind her. “Let’s get this one off you.”

Helena put her arms into the air, as she always did when her maid dressed her. Mary untied the lace on her gown, slipped it over her head, and began untying her stays. Helena sighed deeply.

“Dear me, Miss Helena. That was a sigh and a half! You got troubles today?”

“No, I’m fine,” Helena replied, her lie screaming out into the room.

There was a pause as Mary continued undressing her before the maid said, “I heard your father shouting blue murder earlier. I hope your troubles have nothing to do with that.”

Helena sighed again. “You are both kind and perceptive, Mary. My father is . . .”

She trailed off, her mind pondering exactly what her father was. She was certain he loved and cared for her, even throughout this. If only he truly understood how she and George felt about one another, he would not be so harsh. He would allow them to marry.

Wouldn’t he?

Mary slipped the nightgown over her head and Helena lowered her arms. She sat down, allowing Mary to slide the pins from her hair, letting them clatter into a small porcelain dish on her dressing table.

“My father is old fashioned,” she said eventually, settling on diplomacy rather than strict truth or emotion-baring. If she had any chance of getting her father on her side, she couldn’t very well be seen to be against him. She would convince him with honey far sooner than she would with vinegar, no matter how much it hurt.

“That much he is,” Mary agreed with a curt nod of her head. “I don’t mean to speak out of turn, Miss, but whatever has happened, don’t let it get to you too much. You’ve got a bright future ahead of you, pretty young thing like you.”

Helena reached up and took hold of Mary’s hand while smiling at her in the looking glass. “That’s most kind of you to say, Mary. I appreciate it.”

“And you know I’m always here if you need to talk. You know me; I’m not one for gossip like the others downstairs. Whatever it is, your secret will be safe with me.”

She shot Helena a serious look, eyeing her reflection carefully. Helena felt as though her heart would melt. Her maid had been with her for such a long time, and she would always cherish the friendship they had grown together.

But this was something she needed to deal with herself. Tomorrow, she would wake up and go straight to speak to her father, calmly and lovingly, without argument. Then he would see what a mistake he had made.

“I know it, Mary. You are good to me. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m feeling rather tired. Could you please request that I not be disturbed until morning?”

“Of course, Miss. You get yourself a good night’s sleep. Everything always seems better in the morning light.”

As Mary closed the door, Helena slipped into bed, pulling the covers up around her shoulders. She slid her hand beneath the pillow, and though she didn’t remove the letter, she felt content knowing it was there.

Ever since she met George in the spring, he had become a big part of her life, and nothing would make her lose him now. As she drifted off to sleep, she thought of his warm smile and the way his whole face seemed to light up upon seeing her.

She imagined him lying by her side, whispering sweet words to her and declaring his love for her all over again. She imagined gazing into his eyes, as blue as the summer sky, silently sharing their thoughts and feelings. And as she drifted off to sleep, she allowed herself to imagine what it would be like if she ever became his wife.

She had been asleep only a few hours when she felt her shoulder being shaken. She cracked open her eyes, only to quickly close them again against the glare of the candlelight. She let out a tired and confused groan.

“Lady Helena, you need to get up,” Annie, her mother’s lady’s maid said.

Helena opened her eyes again, slowly this time, prepared. “But it’s still dark,” she moaned. “What’s going on?”

“I’ve been told to get you up and get you dressed, my lady.”

“But why?” Helena pushed herself up into a sitting position and then rubbed her eyes, blinking into the gloom. “Where is Mary?”

Annie shifted uncomfortably and averted her eyes. “Come on, Lady Helena. We’ve got to get going.”

“Annie!” she snapped, exasperated. “Where is Mary? What’s happening?”

Annie huffed under her breath and looked around as if to check no one was there to hear her. “I don’t know what’s going on, my lady. But Mary has disappeared. Your father said she has a family emergency, but rumor is she was let go because your father believes her to be too close to you.”

“We are close because she is my maid, nothing more.”

“Perhaps,” Annie replied. “But Mary has a reputation of being a little . . . loose, Lady Helena. I suspect your father worries she has influenced you in the wrong way.”

“But that’s utter nonsense! Surely you know that, Annie.” Helena’s heart raced as she thought of poor Mary, out of a job because of her decisions.

“Maybe it is all just rumors after all,” Annie continued. “All I know is that I have to get you up and dressed and ready to go as quickly as possible, or I’ll be looking for a new position as well.”

Dread twisted in Helena’s stomach, waking her entirely as it pulled tighter. She couldn’t begin to fathom what was happening, but whatever it was, she knew it couldn’t be good.

And it is almost certainly my father’s doing.

She threw back the covers and leapt out of bed, the sound of her blood rushing in her ears. She dressed quickly, only needing a little aid from Annie, though the pair shared worried looks.

It was still dark when she was bundled into the carriage, only half an hour later, her eyes still blurry with sleep even if her mind was alert. She thought of the letter she’d left under her pillow, and the love she felt in her heart, and as they trundled away into the night, she wondered if she would ever see her George again.

Chapter 1

Spring 1810, nine months earlier

“George, stop idling and help, will ya? This rope ain’t gonna tie itself.”

George blinked and looked up at Adam, his friend and colleague. They’d worked together for some months now, and they’d grown close on the ship, as sailors do, being starved of company as they so often are.

He chuckled and held his hands out to catch the thick snake of rope that Adam threw down to him. It was rough and heavy in his hands, but he was used to it now. He’d even come to like it, for it reminded him of the freedom he felt at sea and the satisfaction he got from hard labor. He made a loop and then hooked it over the anchor post on the dockside.

“What’s got into you today, kid?” Adam asked as he came plodding noisily down the gangplank. “It’s like you’re somewhere else entirely.”

George laughed again, looking out over the port. He was a tall man, and his height allowed him to see over the heads of many who were there.

“Just daydreaming, I suppose,” he said.

“Aye,” Adam said with a teasing nod. “We all know what you’re dreaming of—finding a woman in each port, ey?”

George snorted and shook his head, making his soft chestnut hair move across his face. “You know I’m not like you,” he said. “I’m saving myself for love. Now come on, let’s get this cargo in before the captain catches us nattering.”

“And whose fault would that be?” Adam asked, playfully pushing George as he walked past and made his way to the barrels on the dockside. George followed, humping a barrel onto his back before clambering back on deck with it.

The port was always a busy place, but today it was exceptionally so. One of the things George liked best about being a sailor was the hustle and bustle of the port. It was such a wide mix of people, too. There were sailors like him, and those lower than him—beggars and prostitutes in dark corners. But there were noblemen in top hats and ladies in richly adorned gowns as well. It was one of the few places you could get a glimpse of every walk of life, and George found it fascinating every time they docked.

The air smelled of salt and rum, blanketing the underlying smell of seafood from the fishermen’s boats down the dock. The noise and the chatter built upon the laughter of the passengers and the calls of the workers, and goods and trunks were dragged across the ground to ships ready to sail.

It was the same as any dock the world over, full of life and activity, but England’s ports had a special place in George’s heart. This was his home, his land, and he felt pride in the way the country was pushing forward, leading the world in its modernizing ways.

He trotted back down the gangplank. The way the wood bent beneath his weight and thumped against the side of the ship had frightened him when he first started, over eight years ago, but now it was second nature to him.

He was just about to pick up the next barrel when he heard a screech followed by a giggle. He looked up just in time to see a straw hat tumble through the air in front of him, the long pink ribbon flapping wildly behind it as it bounced on the cobbled ground.

Without thinking, he dashed after it, determined to catch the rogue thing, as though he were a boy again and this was a game. Behind him, he could hear the young lady laughing perhaps more loudly than was proper, followed by her mother’s chastisement.

He reached out for the hat, but just as he was about to grab it, it tumbled again. He followed, back bent and arm stretched out, unable to stop himself laughing as well.

“That’s it, lad, catch the lady’s goods!” It was the captain’s voice hollering behind him, followed by a snigger from the other sailors.

“Look at him running,” Adam called. “Anything to attract a lady.”

“Always the chivalrous knight,” the captain said. “Rescuing the poor maiden.”

Their teasing was good natured but still enough to embarrass George. It was a running joke aboard the ship that he was a romantic fellow, in search of true love. He felt his cheeks flush red, both from exertion and from self-consciousness.

The wind died down and the hat floated gently to the ground. George held his breath, tense and ready to pounce, and at that moment, it felt as though everyone on the dockside fell silent, watching what would happen next.

When he finally snatched it up, he thrust it into the air with a cheer of laughter and turned to face the young lady in question, a wide grin on his face. And that’s when he saw her—truly saw her—for the first time ever.

She took his breath away with her beauty. So youthful, so innocent looking. Her skin was white as alabaster, all but for the dusky pink blush on her cheeks. Her eyes were the color of hazel, and they drew him in, making his mouth gape open.

Heavens above, she is an angel and no mistake.

With a sudden breath, he realized what he was doing, and he slammed his jaw shut as he held the hat out to her.

“I-I believe this belongs to you,” he said, managing to get the words out despite feeling struck dumb.

“Why thank you,” she replied. “It was most kind of you to go running after it like that.”

Her voice was as sweet as sugar and as soft as a cloud, and George could imagine himself falling into it, mesmerized and enchanted. In all his eighteen years, he had never before experienced something as powerful or surprising as the emotions she engendered in him after such a short meeting.

He knew, he just knew, in that very instant, that he had to talk to her for as long as he could. He turned and glanced at Adam, who threw him a knowing smile and nodded his understanding. George had a little time; his friend would pull up the slack and clear it with the captain. He turned back to the beautiful creature in front of him.

“It was the least I could do for someone as lovely as you,” he said and then immediately cringed. He hadn’t meant to be so open about how he felt, and he was certain now that she would laugh and turn away. But she didn’t. Instead, she smiled warmly and thanked him yet again.

“I’m Helena Nicholson,” she said. “And may I ask who you are?”

“George,” he replied simply, and then shook his head. “George Harrison. It’s nice to meet you, Miss Nicholson.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” she replied. “And please, call me Miss Helena. You are my savior after all.”

She giggled, and the sound of it lit him up from the inside. He wanted to hear it again and again.

“Are you just arriving or just leaving?” he asked, realizing she must be from one of the nearby ships.

“Leaving, I’m afraid,” she said. “We’re going to America.”

“America! Are you going for long?”

Miss Helena glanced over her shoulder at her mother, who had stopped to talk to a passing lady. “Just for the summer,” she said, turning back to him. “I am both excited and terrified by the prospect.”

He was impressed. So, few people got to travel so far. But he was also strangely saddened by this news. He barely knew Miss Helena, and already, he somehow knew he would miss her greatly when she was gone.

“Nothing to be terrified of, Miss Helena,” he insisted. “You’ll have a wonderful time—it’s a magnificent place.”

“I hope so,” she said. She bit her bottom lip and looked up at him through her lashes. “Although for some strange reason I cannot fathom, I am now suddenly greatly looking forward to returning to England.”

George looked away, hoping the heat in his cheeks did not show as color, and pushed his lips together to hide his smile. He thought she was paying him a compliment, but he couldn’t be certain and he didn’t want to assume.

“Do you live near here, then?” he asked, thinking to change the subject.

“Tambridge House. Do you know it?”

George’s eyes widened even further. “The big house on the hill? Everybody knows it! So, your father must be a lord, then? A baron?”

“Earl, actually,” she said, her cheeks flushing. She looked down at her feet and shifted her weight, and George wondered why on earth she was so embarrassed. “May I presume you live around here? If you know of our house, I mean.”

“I do,” George said with a chuckle. “Though in nothing as grand as that.”

“I care not for grandiosity,” she said, smiling warmly at him. “I care only for kindness, and you have shown yourself to be extremely kind, Mr. Harrison.”

“George, please,” he insisted. “Call me George, my lady.”

“Very well, George.”

His heart fluttered at the sound of his name upon her lips, and he blinked in surprise. He’d never experienced such a thing before, but it was marvelous, truly so. He wanted more and more of it, and he wanted to see more and more of her. And then he thought of something that made him chuckle. She looked at him curiously.

“I live not far from you, just at the bottom of the hill with my mother.”

“Goodness,” she declared. “That’s not very far at all.”

“Isn’t it quite funny that, for all these years, we’ve lived so close to one another and yet we’ve never had the opportunity to meet each other?” he asked.

She giggled again. “True enough, but you’re a sailor, aren’t you? I can only imagine how often you are away from home. Your poor mother!”

He smiled. “She’s happy enough. And even so, I’m surprised I have never seen you around, at least. And I haven’t—I would have remembered a face as pretty as yours.”

“You are a charmer, George,” she said and put the tips of her fingers onto his forearm.

The touch, even though his shirt and jacket and her gloves, sent a tingling sensation through his entire body, and he looked down at the hand in surprise. Realizing the gesture was overly familiar, she gasped and whipped her hand away.

“Please forgive me,” she said, her eyes darting everywhere except meeting his own. “That was awfully forward.”

He dipped his head to catch her gaze. “You have nothing to apologize for, my lady,” he said. “I am rather enjoying our conversation.”

Her concerned expression turned into a smile. “As am I,” she admitted. “I do believe it must be fate.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, tilting his head in question.

“Well, all these years and we’ve never met! It seems as though fate thought it a terrible injustice, and sent my hat careening through the air at just the right time.”

“What a lovely idea,” he said.

“And perhaps fate will bring us together again,” she said, looking at him hopefully.

“It won’t be fate next time, Lady Helena,” he said. “I will be keeping an eye out for you in every port I dock.”

“Every port?” She giggled again. “You forget I am not and probably never will be as well traveled as you.”

He felt his cheeks blush again and he cursed himself. He’d always blushed easily—like a maiden, Adam teased—but he wished it were not so patently obvious sometimes.

“In this port, then,” he corrected. “And in any you may find yourself at, in the future.”

“Helena!”

She turned to look over her shoulder. Her mother, standing a few feet away, was calling for her, her arm raised in the air to beckon her.

“I have to go now,” Helena said, turning quickly to George. “I hope to see you again though.”

“Come, Helena,” her mother called again. “We are soon to embark!”

“It was lovely meeting you,” George said as she turned and began to move away from him, her dark hair flying out around her.

She didn’t say anything more, but she did reach a hand around and wave without looking back, and George had to resist the urge of reaching out and taking it.

“I ain’t doing this on my own forever, you know.”

George jumped at the gruff sounding voice and turned to see Adam, shifting the last of the barrels onto the ship. He chuckled, though in his heart he already missed the sight of the beautiful young woman who had surely changed his life in such a short time.

“Yes, yes,” he said to appease his friend. “I owe you a favor. Thank you, Adam.” He followed him up the gangplank and onto the ship.

“You do, and I’ve got just the thing. Capt’n wants me to check the rigging over there.”

George rolled his eyes. “And you want me to do it?”

Adam looked at him pitifully. “You know I’m more suited to humping barrels than I am at all that complicated stuff,” he said.

“Maybe if you let your head do the work for you sometimes, you’d realize you’re not as daft as you like to make out,” George said.

Adam grunted, but as George went to move towards the rigging, he called him back. “Well? Is she the one?”

George rolled his eyes again. “She was very pleasant,” he said.

“Pleasant?” Adam scoffed. “I saw that expression on your face. That tongue of yours was halfway to the floor!”

George shook his head and went to check the rigging, but as he laughed at the gentle teasing, he couldn’t help but wonder if Adam was right. Perhaps she was the one.

What nonsense! You’ve known her for all of fifteen minutes!

And yet, despite his protestations and his insistence, George somehow knew that, no matter what happened next, his life had been changed forever.

Chapter 2

Summer 1810, three months later

“I just love listening to you talk, Helena,” Eliza said, her New York drawl rich and powerful. “I’ll never get tired of that accent of yours.”

“Mine?” Helena giggled. “It’s yours that’s so funny. It’s quite a delight, I can tell you, to hear so many people talking so differently. I feel as though I’m in a new world.”

She’d been in America for three months, and still, she was in awe of it. It was both exactly the same and yet entirely different from England. Everything was strange but with a feeling of familiarity—and the same went for the people. At their core, they were human just as Helena and her family were, but they spoke differently and often had wild ideas.

As for the landscape, there was so much space that they needed a coach to get anywhere at all. The roads were so wide and easy to traverse, unlike London’s narrow streets, even with England’s current bid to widen the thoroughfares.

They’d traveled to different areas across the continent, through vast countryside and busy cities, and now they settled in New York City, where the earl was due to partake in a number of business meetings. She’d made several friends along the way, and she had promised to write to each and every one of them, but here in New York, she’d found her very best friend of the whole trip.

Eliza Johnson.

She was two years older than Helena and, as far as Helena was concerned, infinitely more elegant and graceful. She seemed to know so much of the world, and yet she was fascinated by Helena and the very prospect of living in England.

“Won’t you have a coffee?” Eliza asked.

“I’d love one, thank you,” Helena replied as she sat at the white-clothed table. “You know, in England we drink tea, not coffee.”

“Oh, that’s just adorable,” Eliza said as she poured the coffee from a tall pot. “My grandmother always drank tea, but coffee is the drink of the future. You’re missing out.”

“Father says they’re starting to bring coffee over and it’s increasing in popularity, but he won’t have it in the house.”

Eliza gasped as she returned to her seat. “Whyever not? It’s a wonderful drink. Don’t you feel how it rejuvenates you?”

Helena sighed and looked down at the thick brown liquid in her cup. “He’s far too strict, I’m afraid. He prefers old fashioned things, and he despises change. Mother says he’s simply set in his ways, but I think we must embrace the new if we are to progress as people.”

Eliza snorted and placed her coffee cup gently back down on the saucer. “My father is the complete opposite of strict. I barely see him from one day to the next; he’s so busy with his work. He wouldn’t dream of dictating what I can and cannot drink.”

“I wish my father was like that,” Helena said sadly. “I hardly ever get any freedom, and the rules by which he expects me to live are rigid and immovable. It’s no wonder you’re so wise and grown up, Eliza. You’ve been given the chance to explore and grow in your own right.”

“Is he that bad? Your father?”

“He’d control my entire life if he could,” Helena replied. “Luckily, Mother tells him he has to let me out of his sight sometimes. I love him, of course, and I know it’s all because he cares. I just wish he’d give me a break now and then.”

“Well, you’ll be married soon enough, with any luck. It’ll only be a few years, and then he’ll have to accept your husband’s decisions rather than his own.”

At the mention of a husband, Helena’s mind went unbidden to the sailor she had met at the port, the day they set sail for America. They couldn’t have talked for more than twenty minutes, and yet he had found a firm place in her heart already.

She barely knew him, and she knew how crazy it sounded, but she hadn’t stopped thinking about him since that day. Part of her wondered whether this was what love felt like, but she always pushed that thought away.

She’d only met him once, and she was unlikely to meet him again! Besides, she was certain her father wouldn’t approve. She wasn’t entirely sure he’d ever approve of anyone, which she always found odd. He was so strict that he didn’t seem to even like her, so she would have thought he would want to get rid of her as soon as possible—and to anyone who would have her.

Helena twisted her lips into a grimace at the thought. She loved her father dearly and she knew, deep down, that he loved her too. She was being too harsh on him, even if only in her own thoughts. She silently reprimanded herself and reminded herself to be kinder.

“Now Helena,” Eliza said firmly, resting her hand gently on her friend’s. “I can see how much this is getting to you. But don’t let it. You should revolt instead.”

“Revolt?” Helena knew the word, of course she did, but it seemed so out of place in this conversation.

Eliza giggled, her plump red lips pursing and her blue eyes bright with delight. “We Americans love to revolt, you know,” she said. “You must have heard of the war?”

Helena furrowed her brow. In the back of her mind, she was certain she’d heard something about a war, some overheard conversation between her father and a friend.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Why, it was barely thirty years ago when we left the crown,” Eliza explained, “and there are still some places recovering from it, or so my father says. The story goes that there was gunfire in Massachusetts between the army and the lobster backs.”

“Lobster backs?” Helena felt dizzy with confusion. The very idea of war hurt her heart, but more than that, there were so many words and phrases she had never heard.

Eliza was incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable—Helena knew she did not know the history of her own country even half as well.

Eliza laughed again, the giggle tinkling through the room. “Oh, I’m sorry, Helena dear, but that’s what they call the British soldiers.”

Helena shifted uncomfortably in her seat, frowning down at her coffee cup. “I see,” she said, though she didn’t really. Was Eliza trying to say that the British soldiers were bad? Helena had always considered Englishmen to be the very best in all the world and only ever out to do good.

“Listen,” Eliza said, leaning forward and touching Helena’s hand again. “Sometimes, when you’re under control, whether it’s you personally or a whole country, you need to take back your own power. It’s not right for anyone to make decisions for you now, is it?”

“No, I suppose not,” Helena replied.

Eliza’s words were indeed revolutionary and, quite frankly, a little shocking to poor Helena. Her new friend was strong and fierce in a way that she never thought she could be, even if she wanted to.

She sighed and took a sip of her coffee, the bitterness strong against her tongue. She wondered what George would think of all this talk of war, before once again reprimanding herself. What did it matter what George thought? He was not now nor would he ever be part of her life.

But oh, how I would love him to be.

“Oh, I almost forgot!” Eliza’s excited words burst into Helena’s reverie, and she blinked as she looked up.

“What is it?” she asked.

“There’s a masquerade ball tonight over at the Robertsons’ place. You simply must come, Helena. Say you’ll come.”

“Tonight? Heavens, I don’t have a mask, and it’s so soon. I’ll have to speak to my father and ask his permission, and—”

“I have plenty of masks,” Eliza said, interrupting her before she could say no. “You can borrow one of mine. And your father will be fine—you’re with me, not going alone, and if it helps, I’ll have my own father have a word with him.”

Despite herself and her natural reserve, Helena could feel the excitement bubbling up inside her. A masquerade ball! Though she’d attended numerous balls, she’d only ever heard of the masquerade kind, and the idea of being anonymous in a room full of people filled her with elation. Her smile grew on her cheeks.

“All right,” she said. “Let’s do it.”

“I knew I could count on you,” Eliza said, clapping her hands together. “And I’ll need your support tonight.”

“Support?” Helena asked, confused now. “Whatever for?”

Eliza’s cheeks reddened and she looked at Helena sheepishly. “There’s a boy,” she admitted.

Helena couldn’t stop herself from grinning. She knew that feeling, the one she could see written across Eliza’s face. Even though she barely knew George, she still understood that feeling all too well. That pinch of excitement at the prospect of what the future might hold.

“Well?” she asked eagerly. “What’s his name?”

“Joshua,” Eliza replied. “And I do believe he is the most handsome boy in the whole wide world.”

Helena giggled. “Well in that case, I could not possibly say no, could I? I’ll leave right away and ask father, and I shall be back this evening.”

With that, Helena rose from her seat, said her goodbyes, and dashed out of the house.

* * *

As they mounted the steps to the Robertson mansion, Helena felt truly wonderful. She’d selected a gown of cerulean blue, made of silk that had been delicately embroidered around the hem. The empire line skirt fell softly around her ankles, and the sleeves had the slightest puff to them.

Eliza had gone for yellow, the color bright against her dark hair and the style somewhat more elaborate than Helena’s own. They wore matching masks, though in their own colors.

They were rigid and white at their base, tied around the back of the head by a black velvet ribbon. Helena’s had been decorated with blue lace, and with a large blue feather coming out of the side, and it covered all but her lips and her chin. She simply adored the fact that she could look around freely, even though everyone else also wore a mask.

“There he is,” Eliza whispered, nudging Helena in the side.

Helena looked over at the young man, around the same age as George, she guessed. He was tall and broad, with a wide smile and a chin full of youthful stubble. He seemed full of energy, and his eyes sparkled as he talked to his companion, and Helena could instantly see why Eliza liked him. Heavens, upon seeing him, Eliza herself let off waves of energy.

“You were quite right when you said he was handsome,” Helena said from the corner of her mouth, not taking her eyes from him.

“And he’s so much more than that,” Eliza said. “He’s funny and intelligent and kind and caring.”

Helena giggled. “It sounds as though you are smitten already.”

“And it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world,” Eliza said breathlessly. “Oh, Helena, you just wait until you fall in love. You’ll understand what I mean then.”

Again, an image of George flashed through her mind, but she shook her head, not allowing herself to dream of such a thing as love. She was, after all, being far too enthusiastic about a man she had spoken to for less than thirty minutes.

“I hope to experience it one day,” she said wistfully. “I’ve certainly read about it often enough, and I find love to be the greatest purpose of our lives. Don’t you agree?”

“If that is our purpose,” Eliza said, tilting her head to one side, “then I do believe I am on my way to achieving it. All I need to do is convince Joshua of that fact.” She laughed, shaking her head as though that was a difficult feat.

“And has he shown you any interest at all?” Helena asked, hoping beyond hope for Eliza’s sake that he had.

She offered Helena a lop-sided smile and looked away, embarrassed. “He has called on me a number of times, though I’m sure it was mere politeness, nothing more.”

Helena snorted before she could stop herself. “Nonsense, Eliza! Gentlemen do not call on those they are not interested in. I’m certain he has far too much to do with his time than call on you in mere politeness.”

“Do you really think so?” Eliza asked, her voice high with hope.

“Of course, I do! Come, let’s go talk to him.”

Within an hour, Helena and Eliza sat at a table opposite Joshua and his friend, Noah. They’d long removed their masks, and with it Helena could see the looks of love Joshua threw Eliza—and which Eliza returned.

I hope to find someone to share such emotion with one day.

The conversation flowed easily, Helena’s voice plummy amongst the twang of the New Yorkers’ accents. They talked about everything and anything, and Helena felt as if she truly belonged, as though she was one of them. It made her feel like an adult—and an interesting and intelligent one at that—something that she never seemed to feel whenever her father was around.

“Did I tell you this is Lady Helena’s first masquerade ball?” Eliza said.

Joshua raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Don’t they do this in England?”

“Oh, they do,” Helena said, “but I’ve never had the good fortune to attend one.” She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She had hoped her lack of experience in social circles would not be quite so obvious among these worldly-wise people, but it wasn’t her fault. Despite her begging and pleading, her father only ever let her attend a few balls and parties, and that was only ever in the company of her mother.

“And what do you think?” Noah asked.

“It’s wonderful,” Helena gushed. “It’s terribly exciting, not really knowing who you are talking to.”

“I think that’s why they banned them in Boston,” Joshua said, leaning back in his chair and cradling his wine glass to his chest.

“Banned what?” Helena asked. Eliza rolled her eyes.

“In Boston, they’ve prohibited masquerade balls entirely,” she explained. “The new rule came in last December.”

“But why?” Helena asked, horrified at the idea. “They are so much fun!”

“They say it’s because secret identities might lead to immoral behavior,” Noah said, nodding knowingly.

“I heard the law-makers think masquerade balls are a starting point for unrestricted behavior. They don’t trust us to behave,” Joshua added.

“Goodness, what silliness,” Helena declared.

“And from what you’ve told me about your father,” Eliza said, “I’m not at all surprised you haven’t been to one, Helena.”

“It’s all puritanical nonsense if you ask me,” Joshua said, leaning forward again and winking at Eliza. “We’re just as capable of misbehaving without masks as we are with them.”

By the end of the night, Helena was exhausted, but with happiness and exhilaration. They had talked and danced and laughed for hours, and Helena thought how much she would miss her new friends when she returned to England. She only hoped they would one day make the journey across the seas to visit her.

“Well now, wasn’t that a pleasant evening?” Lady Tambridge said as they were in the carriage going home. “I’m glad your friend invited us, Helena. You look as though you’ve had a wonderful time, too.”

“I did,” Helena said honestly. “I don’t believe I’ve ever laughed so much in my life.”

Her mother shot her a look. “But you must be careful to remain ladylike at all times, my dear.”

“Of course, Mother. Fret not, you know I would never do anything inappropriate.”

Lady Tambridge smiled and patted her on the back of the hand. “I know you wouldn’t. You’re a good girl. Have you enjoyed the trip? We’ll be returning to England sooner rather than later.”

Helena sighed. “I have enjoyed it thoroughly, though I must admit I am looking forward to returning home and sleeping in my own bedchambers.”

“Really?” Her mother sounded surprised. “I would have thought you felt the same as me.”

“In what way?”

Helena twisted in her seat to get a better view of her mother as the coach trundled across the uneven ground. It was dark out, the moon barely a sliver in the sky, and the city had quieted after its night of balls and parties.

“I simply adore America,” Lady Tambridge said wistfully. “If it were not for your father’s duties as Earl, I would suggest we settle here permanently.”

“It is lovely here,” Helena admitted. “And perhaps in the future I should like to visit again, but I could never see myself here long-term.”

“Is there any reason for that?” Lady Tambridge asked. “You seem so comfortable with your new friend, and I am certain young Noah has a softness for you.”

Helena felt her cheeks blush. She, too, had noticed the way in which Noah had looked at her, but she had ignored it. She had no interest in him whatsoever.

“But I have so many duties at home, Mother. And then there are my friends and my home comforts. And you know how much I love England and everything about it. As much as I have enjoyed my time here, even you must agree there is something special about our own country that isn’t quite present here in America.”

But more importantly, though she didn’t tell her mother, she could not stop thinking about that sailor.

George. I must return for George.

Chapter 3

“Thank you,” Laura said as she took the cup of tea from her son.

“You’re welcome, Mum,” George said. He said down opposite her, the small wooden dining table between them.

“You’re a good boy.” She blew across the surface of her tea and then snorted with laughter. “I don’t suppose you’re much of a boy anymore though. Look at you, a big strong man just like your father was.”

George smiled and looked down at himself as though he hadn’t noticed. “How on earth did that happen?” he asked, teasing his mother. She rolled her eyes.

“No doubt all that hard work you do,” she said. “You’re stronger than an ox, my boy.”

George merely smiled and then picked up his own teacup and took a sip. The liquid was hot, searing the inside of his mouth, but he didn’t mind. He was happy to be there, with his mother, between contracts and on leave for the first time in what felt like forever. He was home, and he felt the warmth and joy of it in his heart.

He and Laura only had each other, and it had been that way for many years now. George couldn’t stop himself from worrying about her when he was away. It was unavoidable—he had to earn money to keep them—but he thought perhaps she got lonely without him.

His father died when George was only a boy no older than ten. They had been a content little family, his father working hard to look after them and his mother keeping house and caring for them. It had been a shock when his father died, having caught pleurisy when out at work.

The disease ravaged him quickly, eating away at him until he passed only weeks later. It had left Laura and George utterly devastated and barely able to survive. They had survived, of course, but even now, after all this time, George worried about his mother. He couldn’t help it.

“How have you been keeping whilst I was away?” he asked, leaning back in his chair and smiling at her.

She looked content, as she always did when he got home. She was plump—a good sign of health—and her blue eyes shone brightly with a youth she no longer possessed. Her hair, now closer to gray than blonde, had been carefully pinned, and she smelled of lemons as she somehow always had.

“Oh, I’ve been well enough,” she replied, waving a hand in the air as if to brush him off. “You know me, I just plod along doing what needs to be done, making sure the place is ship-shape for your return visits and we have plenty of food in.”

“It’s always perfect, Mum, and you know it.”

“I do my best,” she said.

Her smile was sheepish, coy, but beneath her humility he could see she was pleased by the compliment. What he had said was true. She worked so hard to make everything just right whenever he returned, and he appreciated it more than she could ever know. He felt buoyed by her maternal love whenever he saw her.

“Your letters always bring a smile to my face though,” she continued. “I love reading about what you’re doing. Where did you go this time?”

“Kenya,” he said. “The Indian Ocean. You should see it—it’s vast and wonderful. I even caught a glimpse of a monkey on the coast!”

“A monkey!” Laura’s eyes were wide with delight, like those of a child being told a bedtime story. She’d never seen a monkey, and he knew that. She would love too though.

“I didn’t get much further than the port, of course. We were barely there long enough to load up the ship and then return. I’d love to explore it one day.”

“Maybe one day you will,” she said, reaching over and patting his hand. “Who would have thought I’d ever have a son who’s traveled the world?”

George chuckled. “I’m a sailor, Mum. It’s all part of the job. It’s not like I’m some traveling nobleman.”

“No,” she admitted. “But you’re better than that. You are a good, hardworking man who is experiencing the world through your own doing and not simply because of what you have inherited. That is something to be proud of, believe me.”

He smiled at his loving mother. She was so proud of him that the feeling exuded from her and filled him up with gratitude and emotion. He was glad he could support her financially now; she could have the life she deserved.

He looked around the small room. Their home wasn’t large, but it was big enough and certainly comfortable. They had four rooms in total: the kitchen, two bedrooms, and the visitor’s room, where Laura liked to greet their few guests.

The small hearth contained a roaring fire and was surrounded by a low iron grate, the rich scent of burning wood filling the room. Opposite it, there was a simple kitchen area that looked out of the window over the garden, and the dining table sat in the middle of the room. This was the heart of the house, the place they spent most of their time together.

“And such a good sailor you are too,” she replied. “I spoke to that captain of yours last time I waved you off. Thinks you’re a great worker, so he does.”

George chuckled again. His mother was his greatest advocate, and she would tell anyone who would listen how wonderful he was. He could only imagine the captain’s nodding and agreement. The man would be too polite to end the conversation before the older woman had finished.

“He’s a very nice man, that captain,” Laura continued.

“He is,” George agreed with a nod of his head. “And he’s been good to me, too. He says if I play my cards right, I might work my way up to captain myself one day, but that seems so far off.”

“How delightful! My son, a sea captain!” Laura beamed at the idea. “You’d be able to keep your future wife and children in good comfort with a captain’s wage, no doubt.”

“Ah, the elusive future wife,” he teased. “I wonder where I will find her.”

He laughed, as he often did when his mother talked about his future wife as if she was already a real person. Normally, he pictured a generic woman, someone he was yet to meet, but not today. To his surprise, today, for the first time, he pictured Lady Helena as his wife. Lady Helena, the beautiful, charming, and entertaining young lady he had met before his last trip away.

They hadn’t had much time to talk then. She was going away and he had work to do. But she’d been in his mind—and, if he admitted it to himself, in his heart—ever since. It was no good of course. They lived so close to one another and yet had never met before. There was no reason to think they would ever meet again.

And besides, they were not well matched. He was a sailor and a worker, and she was the daughter of an earl. It was far too close a tale to one of those in his mother’s novels, a romantic fantasy and nothing more. Still, it was nice to dream, and the image of her in his mind was more than pleasant. Maybe one day they would meet again, and if not, perhaps he would find someone just like her.

“Do you remember when you first snuck off to become a sailor?” Laura asked, a twinge of the wistful to her voice. “You were only a boy.”

“I remember it well,” George said. He looked down into his cup, his memories playing out across the surface of his tea. “I was terrified, but I was determined too.”

It had been a difficult time since his father died. As a family, they were left without an income, as he had died long before he’d had a chance to put something in place for his family. They had meager savings, but even at that young age, George realized it would not be enough to sustain them for long.

At night, when she thought he was asleep, George often heard his mother crying. And during the day, he watched as she scrabbled and saved, using every scrap of food and mending the most damaged of clothing.

One night after dinner, she told him she would have to get a job. A maid’s position, she suggested, or if she was lucky, a cook’s. The idea filled George with shame, and he knew how much his father would have hated seeing her slave for someone else’s family. He pictured her working her fingers to the bone, her face ragged with exhaustion, her healthy weight shrunk down to nothing.

As he lay in bed later that night, he made a decision, and it was a decision that affected both of their lives forever.

“You were terrified?” Laura cried incredulously. “Good Lord, George, I was petrified! That was the scariest time of my life, waking up to find you gone. I had the neighbors out searching for you for hours each day, and I even went around all the local taverns asking if anyone had seen you.”

“I know you did,” he replied softly.

She’d told him the stories often enough, and every time she reminded him, guilt bloomed in his chest. With hindsight, he supposed he should have left her a note or something, explaining where he had gone, but he was just a child and he hadn’t had the foresight.

Her worried expression turned into a great smile and she caught his gaze, making him meet her eyes. “You wouldn’t believe the relief I felt when I got that letter from you a couple of days later.”

George chuckled. He’d heard this bit, too, but he didn’t mind hearing it again. It had become something of a ritual of theirs every time he returned home on leave.

“I bet the money made you smile too,” he laughed.

“The advance on your pay certainly helped things, but it was your reassurances that you were well that truly made my day.”

“Whatever the reason, I’m happy to have made you feel better.”

She raised a finger and pointed directly at him. “Don’t you think that means I wasn’t angry at you though,” she said fiercely. “Proud and touched I may have been, but you disappeared in the middle of the night and gave me the fright of my life! You never were one for doing as you were told, were you?”

“Once again, I’m sorry,” George reiterated. “But it’s been the making of me, I’m sure you’d agree. I certainly do what I’m told now, or the captain would make garters of my guts!”

Laura laughed and placed her teacup onto the saucer. She reached over and took George’s hand in her own.

“You’ve looked after me when I was supposed to be the one looking after you,” she said. “You were far too young to be disappearing into the world of work, but I am and always will be grateful you did. I’m not sure we would have survived otherwise.”

“I know, Mum,” George replied softly, recognizing again this part of their script. He squeezed her hand. “I know.”

“I just wish there was more I could have done, more I could have given you,” she said.

“Nonsense,” he replied. “You gave me everything I needed and more. I wouldn’t be the man I am today without you.”

“And what a man that is.”

“Besides,” he continued. “If I’d never have become a sailor, I never would have met . . .”

He trailed off, realizing he’d said more than he should have. His eyes were wide and he felt his heart begin to race. He hadn’t meant to mention Lady Helena, and though he hoped his mother hadn’t noticed, he could already see the glint of delight in her eyes. She’d been urging him to meet a potential wife for years.

“You’ve met someone?” she asked on a gasp.

“No, no,” he said quickly, waving a hand in the air. “No, nothing like that. I just meant I would never have met all the wonderful people I have met over the years. I’ve made some of the best friends a man could have.”

Laura’s lips twisted into a knowing smile. “I don’t believe that for a second,” she declared. “I can see it almost oozing out of you, if not love than something akin to it.”

George snorted. He couldn’t help it. His mother was terribly perceptive, but love seemed a little far-fetched after such a short meeting.

Doesn’t it?

Of course, it did. He couldn’t even entertain it—it was nonsense, too quick. And yet . . . he couldn’t stop the feelings from brewing in his heart.

“Honestly, Mum, there is no one.”

Laura tutted loudly. “For goodness sake, George! I know you too well, and you know that I’ll get it out of you sooner or later, so you might as well just spit it out.”

George scoffed and toyed with the handle of his cup. She was right, he would tell her eventually, so he might as well get it over with. And that’s how he came to tell her everything, from the simple facts of their opportune meeting, to the thoughts and feelings that had overwhelmed him ever since.

When he’d finished talking, Laura sat back in her chair, grinning wildly. “And there you have it,” she said simply.

He looked at her, brow furrowed in confusion. “Have what?” he asked.

“You’re finally—and entirely—smitten. And after just one meeting! This girl must be truly special indeed.”

George only smiled in reply, but as he sat back and thought about it, he realized his mother was right. He was utterly and entirely smitten.

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