It was an obscenely nice day for a funeral.
Or so Alec thought, at least. It was something the old duke had always said. Today, the sun shone, the birds chirped, and the sky was a perfect azure blue.
Alec, my boy, his familiar, brusque voice echoed through Alec's memory, it's not a proper funeral unless it's raining or snowing.
Come to think of it, that had probably been a joke the duke had made to take Alec's mind off some funeral they were attending. The family had had a run of tragic luck over the years. Beside the freshly dug grave for the old Duke of Ravensworth, there were two gravestones. One gravestone was exactly like the duke's, only much older, worn and weathered. The inscription could still be read, though.
Here Lies Lady Jane Thorpe, Duchess of Ravensworth. Devoted Wife and Mother. Greatly Mourned.
Greatly mourned was an understatement. The old duke had never thrown off his melancholy after the death of his beloved wife. He took to drinking and staying out late with bad company in a way he never had before.
Perhaps Christopher could have saved him.
Poor Christopher, the heir, who lay in the grave next to his mother. Alec was all that was left, and it wasn't fair. He wasn't the heir. He was the spare; that was how it worked. The heir and the spare, and the spare was usually free to live his own life. He could be educated how he chose, keep the company he wanted.
He could marry whomever he wanted, assuming his father approved.
Well, those dreams had been buried two years ago, along with Christopher.
The priest, who had the dullest monotone Alec had ever heard, seemed to be reaching a conclusion. He couldn't recall the man's name. Not being able to remember the names of the clergy wasn't a particularly good start for a new duke. To distract himself from his inadequacies, Alec scanned the rows of guests at the graveside.
There were all the society families, of course, since this was the funeral of a well-known duke. The Kirks, newly returned from London, were clustered together around their beautiful oldest daughter. The St Just family were trying unsuccessfully to control their brood of children, and there were other families that Alec barely recognised.
His father hadn't had too many society friends at the time of his death.
At a distance clustered the servants, farmers, and tenants. There were far more of them, and they seemed much more affected. Alec thought it a pity that Margaret Rutherford, the woman who'd been their housekeeper for years and had worked for the family before he was born, couldn't come to the funeral. He'd been ready to move heaven and earth to get her a little a free time, but Margaret insisted. She trusted no one else to get the house and food ready for the wake, she said. She must do it herself.
Alec understood. She and the old Duke had enjoyed an affectionate respect, and he thought she would miss him dearly. It wasn't every employer that would take on a pregnant woman, and Margaret had always remembered his kindness.
He kept scanning the rows of servants, looking for one familiar face. Ah! There she was.
One young woman stood out in the little crowd of servants, the only one not wearing the black and white of the housemaids' uniforms or the livery of the footmen.
Hannah was not a maid. She wore a brown stuff dress, not quite demure enough to disguise her flaming red hair. Freckles dotted her round face, and Alec thought he could count every single one of them. They'd known each other for so long that he must surely know them by heart.
As if sensing his eyes on her, Hannah looked up and caught his eye. She flashed him a smile, and Alec smiled weakly back before remembering his place and returning his attention to the funeral.
Most of the society guests hadn't looked twice at the household staff, but he'd noticed one or two of the more observant, gossip-hungry guests eyeing Hannah with vague curiosity, trying to work out who she was and where she fit into the grand hierarchy of things. They'd remember her hair, of course; people always did. He'd seen Lady Dumbarton, a particularly unfriendly old woman, glowering at Hannah earlier. She made her own servants still wear hair powder, for heaven's sake. Seeing unpowdered red hair in a servant would probably give her an apoplexy.
Alec found himself filing this little incident in his head to tell Hannah later. She would think it was funny.
He gave himself a little shake; he shouldn't be thinking about Hannah. He was eager to distract himself from the funeral—heaven only knew that he had shed enough tears for his father over the past few days—but now was not the right time.
No, not the right time. Never the right time.
* * *
The kitchen was a hub of activity, with maids and footmen dashing around bearing trays of delicacies. The poor cook presided over it all, assisted by the housekeeper herself. Margaret barely looked up from her work.
"How did the funeral go, my lord?" she said, furiously sprinkling sugar on some puddings.
"It sounds odd for you to call me My Lord, Margaret." Alec said.
She smiled wryly. "Well, you had better get used to it. You're the Duke of Ravensworth now. Why aren't you seeing to the funeral guests upstairs?"
He pulled a face. "I can’t bear it. Not a single one of them truly cared about Father. They didn’t know him."
"How many of us really know anyone?"
"No, I mean that they never visited him. Ever. Why should I have them here as my guests?"
Margaret laid down her sieve and sugar bowl and wiped her hands on her apron. "Come with me, My Lord."
Alec followed her obediently into one of the little alcoves off the kitchen.
"You have to stop this, Lord Alec."
He blinked. That wasn't what he'd expected. "What do you mean?"
Margaret was a short woman and had to tilt her head up to look at him. She had iron-grey hair, making her look older than her forty-something years, and the same blue-green eyes as Hannah. She’d raised Alec from a baby, and at times he felt as if Margaret was his real mother, not the mysterious duchess, who had died when he was barely twelve. He was sure that his mother loved him, but she had always seemed so very distant.
"I mean that you are the Duke of Ravensworth. I'll not go on about you taking your place in society—I'm sure you’ll hear enough of that from all your fine new friends upstairs. I'm talking about all the people who depend on you for their livelihood. Farmers, tenants, dependants, all of us who work in this house and in the gardens. The late Duke—God rest his soul—let the estate run itself and more or less locked himself away. I worry that it's affected you. There's work to be done, Lord Alec. A lot of people are depending on you, and you can’t hide away in the kitchens."
Alec shivered. "I know, I know. It’s just… it's just too much."
Margaret nodded. Her eyes softened with sympathy, and she laid a work-calloused hand on Alec's arm. "We’re all here for you, Alec. All of us. You and your Pa were the best employers any of us could wish for, and we'll not abandon you now. Do you promise me that you'll try?"
Alec nodded numbly. "I don’t know what to do." He confessed, hating how helpless he felt. "I don’t belong up there, with those people, but I don’t belong down here, either."
"You belong here." Margaret said firmly. "Here, in your home, in Raven House, with us. Besides, the funeral's over. The worst is over, you mark my words."
"Mrs Rutherford," a female voice called nervously from the kitchen, "I think the soufflés are going all funny. I think I did something wrong."
Margaret gave a strangled yelp and went running back into the kitchen. Alec was wisely retreating when he came face to face with someone familiar. Someone familiar in a brown stuff dress.
"Hello, Alec." Hannah's face lit up when she saw him. "Oh, wait. I should call you Lord Alec now, shouldn’t I? Or would you prefer your lordship?"
She swept down into a mock curtsey and Alec laughed despite himself.
"Oh, give over. Alec is fine. Anything else from you would sound odd, after all these years."
Hannah’s smile wavered a little. "How… how was it? The funeral, I mean."
"You were there."
"Yes, but I wasn't really part of it. The servants never are. You seemed very well composed."
Alec nodded. "It’s what Father would have wanted. He always said that one cries before the funeral or after, not during. Although," he grimaced, glancing up at the ceiling as if he could look right through it at his genteel guests above, "I feel like crying at the thought of hours up there. Everyone is so sombre."
"It's a funeral, Alec."
"They weren't Father’s friends, Hannah. They haven't a right to be sombre."
Hannah shrugged, leaning against the door frame. "Perhaps they feel guilty about not extending the hand of friendship earlier."
"I doubt it. From what I can remember, Father thoroughly burned his bridges."
"And will you?"
Alec fidgeted under Hannah’s steady gaze. "Will I what?"
"Burn your bridges?"
"No," Alec answered slowly. "I don’t think so. I'll try not to, at least. I promised your mother that I would at least try."
"As if she would have settled for anything less."
"Hannah?" Margaret called from the kitchen. "Is that you?"
Hannah drew in a breath. “Duty calls. I think I’ll be pressed into maid’s duty this evening. There are so many guests, and we haven't had to deal with guests since…" she faltered. “Since the last funeral."
Alec was relieved that Hannah hadn’t said since Christopher. He’d spent all his spare moments that day thinking of his brother.
"Good luck, I suppose."
"And you." Hannah dimpled back at him. "Oh! Before I forget, Robert was looking for you. He said to tell you that he needs to talk to you."
"No, not now. Tonight or tomorrow, or whenever you feel ready. But soon. He was adamant that it should be soon."
"Alright. Thank you." Alec nodded, and Hannah hurried off towards the kitchens.
* * *
Alec dawdled guiltily on the way back to his guests. He paused in the hall, looking up at the huge family portrait that dominated one wall. He hadn’t looked at it properly in a while. It had been there so long that it had almost melted into the other furnishings, just one more thing Alec took for granted.
There was the old duke, grand and regal with silver threading through his black hair. The sixteen-year-old Christopher stood beside him, looking like a younger version of his father. He had a sharp, square jaw, the same glossy black hair, and piercing blue eyes that seemed to leap out from the canvas. Everyone had always said how handsome Christopher was.
The duchess lounged beside the two men, all dewy brown eyes and dusky chestnut curls. She’d been a beautiful woman, before her wasting illness had taken hold. It was strange that her illness had passed to Christopher, rather than Alec, when Alec was the one who resembled his mother.
Alec stood there too, somewhat overshadowed by his handsome older brother. Alec's face was a pale oval, dominated by large brown eyes and the same round, red lips as his mother. He had her chestnut curls, too. Alec had been no more than ten in the portrait and had grown into his looks somewhat.
It’s only me left, Alec thought with a pang, looking up at his family.
"Alright there, My Lord?"
He flinched, and spun around to see a silver-haired, middle-aged man smiling faintly at him. "You seemed lost in thought."
"I'm sorry, I…" Alec faltered, uncomfortably aware that this man was a guest at his father's funeral, and Alec didn’t recognise him.
"Lord Nathaniel Kirk, Duke of Kimber." The man introduced himself with a smile. "Your father and I had… words, shall we say, many years ago. I regret not patching up our rift when I could. On his behalf, I hope you'll accept me as a friend."
"I will, of course." Alec managed.
The man smiled, oddly reminding Alec of a wolf. "Good, good. Now, please, come this way. I'd like to introduce you to my family. Think of us as your family, from now on"
"Explain it to me again. How bad is bad?" Alec asked, feeling more stupid by the minute. He’d never had much of a head for finances or numbers and judging by the grim expression on the estate steward’s face, neither had his father. Alec couldn’t make sense of the frantic columns of numbers and words, all in the same spiky handwriting; it was almost indecipherable.
Like Hannah, Robert Adams had grown up on the Ravensworth estate. His father had been the old duke's steward, handling all financial matters and functioning as the hub which kept the wheels of the estate turning. When the old steward had died suddenly, his son, Robert, took over. That had only been half a year ago, and Robert still wasn’t properly settled in his new role.
Alec had to remind himself that Robert, too, had lost a beloved father.
Robert was twenty-nine, a good five years older than Alec, but one would be forgiven for thinking he was older still. He had black hair and a serious, almost stern face. His eyes were grey, too light for his dark colouring, and he seemed to be perpetually tired. The funeral had been yesterday, and, judging by Robert’s crumpled clothing and the dark circles under his eyes, he could have been sitting at his desk all night.
"The estate is in arrears." Robert said finally, with the air of a man who didn’t know how to explain the situation any more simply. "Badly. There are huge chunks of money missing from the accounts, and we… well, Alec, I will be straight with you. There is no more money."
"Well… what about the rents? The farmer’s incomes? What about…" Alec struggled to think of other revenues of income. He really had no idea where their money came from, and that was likely to be a serious problem.
Robert sighed, scratching his temple with a pencil. "The estate is mortgaged to the hilt, Alec. All of our money must go to paying off these debts, and I cannot see whether even that will be enough."
Alec swallowed. "What does this mean, Robert?"
"It means that if we're not able to pay off a substantial portion of these debts soon, you may lose the house. We'll have to sell off parts of the land to pay."
"I am not."
Alec raked a hand through his disordered chestnut curls. "Where could we get the money from?"
"Investments, I suppose. You could borrow money from a rich friend, who might not charge such a crippling level of interest."
"I don’t have any friends like that."
Robert tore his eyes away from his ledger, and his eyes were cold. “Then find one, Alec. This is serious, more serious than you realise."
Alec smarted a little at that. "I’m not a child, Robert."
"I didn't mean…"
"I'm not the nervous little boy who followed you and Hannah around." Alec snapped. "I'm not afraid to climb too high in the tree anymore. I’m a man, and I’m a duke."
Robert dropped his eyes. "I remember when you did climb too high. You fell. Remember? You broke your arm."
"I'm trying to help you, Alec." Robert looked up to meet Alec's gaze again. "Let me help you, please. We can work this problem out together. But there is one thing you absolutely must know."
Robert leaned forward, his grey eyes red-rimmed and watering. “Don't tell anyone about this."
"About our financial problems?"
"Yes. Once word gets out that we have no money, creditors will start to circle. Once one of them swoops in, demanding their money, they will all want a bite, until there’s nothing left of us. All those fine friends you made yesterday won't want to know you if you’re poor. It's a delicate balance, and we have to be so careful."
Alec shivered. "I will be careful. We can tell Hannah, though, can’t we?"
"Of course. She handles the household accounts instead of Mrs Rutherford, doesn’t she? I wanted to talk to her, to see what corners we can cut. We need to save money from now on."
He nodded. "I understand."
There came a light tap at the door, and a mousy-haired maid by the name of Edith peered in. She looked nervous, and rightly so—the steward’s office was Robert's personal domain.
"Pardon me, milord, but you’ve got guests. Upstairs, in the drawing room. Mr Pollock showed them in."
Alec frowned. "Guests? I wasn't expecting anyone."
"They're right fancy, sir! The ladies are so finely dressed. I got a peep at them when they came through the hall. There's two ladies and a gentleman, milord."
"I'll be up directly. Thank you, Edith."
* * *
Alec knew who was in the drawing room immediately. He heard Lady Kirk’s crisp, cultured tones even through the closed door. The Kirks it was, then. Alec was frankly surprised. Who came visiting the day after a funeral?
Still, it was a relief to be distracted from the money concerns. Still, Alec somehow hoped it was all a mistake, and they were not in debt, or that Robert could pull some money out of somewhere, and all would be as it was.
He opened the door and pasted on a smile.
"Lord Thorpe, how lovely!" Lady Kirk greeted him, all twinkling eyes and wide smiles. "Or may I call you Lord Alec? I do intend for us to be good friends! We do apologise for dropping in on you so soon after the funeral."
"Is it convenient, dear boy?" Lord Kirk chipped in, enveloping Alek’s hand in a warm, firm handshake. "We just had to see how you were."
"It's no trouble at all." Alec assured them. "I welcome the interruption. I was closeted with my estate steward, you see. Please, sit down. I'll ring for tea."
Alec hauled on the seldom used rope in the corner of the room, and the tall, portly Mr Pollock, the slab-faced butler, appeared at the door and took the request for tea.
When Alec turned around again, Lord Kirk had taken one of the armchairs and Lady Kirk the other. Their daughter, whom he’d briefly met last night, sat on half of the two-seat sofa. That left the second half for him.
Alec sank down into the seat, and their smiles widened.
"Lord Alec, I don't believe you had time to meet my daughter, Lady Emmeline." Lord Kirk said, gesturing to Alek’s seat partner.
Lady Emmeline smiled coyly. "I daresay you don’t remember me at all."
Alec suppressed a smile. Lady Emmeline would be a difficult woman to forget. She was around twenty, he supposed, and had just returned from a very successful London Season. However, there had been no engagements rumoured, so apparently her Season hadn’t been that successful.
She was beautiful and clearly knew it. Lady Emmeline had perfect, flaxen curls, framing her heart-shaped face. She had an exquisite strawberries-and-cream complexion, finished off with pink rosebud lips and large blue eyes.
Her dress had been carefully chosen to flatter her admirable figure and was extremely expensive looking. All in the latest fashion, of course.
"If you need any help with the estate, speak to my man, Giles." Lord Kirk said seriously. "I mean it, Lord Alec. Any time you like. I'm always willing to be a good friend to a neighbour. If you need money, advice, or anything, please do come to me."
Alec smiled faintly. "Thank you, that's very kind."
He had no intention of taking Lord Kirk up on his offer.
"So, how have you been feeling?" Lady Emmeline asked, fixing those large, soulful blue eyes on Alec. "You must be devastated at the loss of your father."
Alek’s smile froze. "It was very sudden. I am bearing up quite well, thank you."
He suddenly wanted the Kirks to leave, more than anything. They weren't like Margaret or Hannah or Robert. Their expressions were polite but cold, making him think of people wearing masks.
"I want you to know," Lady Emmeline said, leaning closer to Alec, "That we're here for you. I can’t imagine how terrible this must be for you, but your friends are here to support you."
"Thank you for that." Alec said, touched despite himself. Lady Emmeline reached out and laid a white, dainty hand on his sleeve.
Lady Kirk leaned forward in her seat. "Why don’t you come and stay with us for a while? I daresay you need a little holiday."
"That's very kind, but…"
"No, no." Lady Emmeline's little hand twitched on his sleeve. "We won't take no for an answer, will we, Mama? I really would like you to come and stay with us, Lord Alec." She dropped her gaze as she spoke, looking up again at him through her lashes.
Was she doing that deliberately, or was he just being a little paranoid? Alec shook off the uncomfortable feeling and concentrated on being firm but kind. There was no way he could step away from the estate’s affairs right now, and Robert’s warning rang in his head.
"Thank you all for your kindness, but…"
"Excellent! It’s settled!" Lady Emmeline crowed, clapping her hands.
"It's not, I'm afraid." Alec said awkwardly. "There's a lot of work for me to do here on the estate, and I can’t possibly take a holiday just now."
"Ah, come, Lord Alec, surely you won’t disappoint the ladies?" Lord Kirk said jovially.
"I'm afraid I must."
Lady Emmeline opened her mouth to voice another objection but was silenced by a quick glance from her mother.
"As you wish, Lord Alec." Lord Kirk said, the charming smile still on his face. "Another time, then? As I said, you may call on me or my man Giles at any time. We’re quite determined to be friends with you, my boy."
Hannah traced the nib of her pen down the column of numbers, careful not to make any blots. The housekeeper normally did the household accounts in a house like this, but Margaret had been all too happy to hand them over to Hannah when she was old enough, considering her remarkable knack for numbers. Hannah could add long columns of numbers in her head as quick as blinking and found a great sense of satisfaction in a balanced ledger and rows and columns of neat, sensible numbers.
This ledger wouldn't balance, though. This was the third time Hannah had been through the accounts, and they would need some more money for supplies soon. They were behind on their payments to a lot of their suppliers. The butcher had politely visited and asked for his outstanding bill to be settled. Hannah had promised it would be looked at. She would need to speak to Alec.
No, not Alec. He was a duke now and wouldn't deal in such mundane matters as paying the butcher. She probably ought to talk to Robert about it from now on. Hannah leaned back in her seat, sighing. She was getting a headache and pinched the bridge of her nose in a futile attempt to ward it off.
Everything would be different now, between her and Alec.
Well, there would be no more of that sort of informality, that was for certain. Hannah hadn’t thought twice about using Alek’s Christian name as they grew up together, but it wouldn't be proper for much longer. The grand visitors Alec had today—the ones everyone was whispering about, with a young lady as beautiful as you like—were just the beginning. There'd be more and more visitors, and invitations to parties, and sooner or later Alec would meet a lovely young lady and…
Hannah cut that thought off. It wasn't pleasant, and brooding on it wouldn't do anyone any good. She tried to redirect her attention to the ledger, but that was no good, either. She couldn't magic up money out of thin air. The accounts wouldn’t balance, and that was that.
The door to the housekeeper's office creaked open, and Margaret peeped in.
"Are you almost done?"
"Yes, Mother." Hannah rubbed her tired eyes. 'the butcher and the greengrocer both want to be paid, and we’re almost out of preserves."
"Well, there’s no more we can do about that at the moment, so step along with me into the parlour. We have a visitor."
Hannah frowned. "A visitor? Who'd want to visit us?"
Margaret smiled mysteriously. "You’ll see. Now put those accounts away and come."
Curiosity piqued, Hannah got up and followed.
There were several small parlours down in the servants" quarters, designed to be used by the household staff. The nicest of these belonged to the housekeeper, and Margaret had allowed Hannah to fill it with her books.
Margaret led the way into the parlour, and Hannah craned her neck to get a good look at the man sitting at the small parlour table, eyeing the tea things.
He was a middle-aged man of around forty, very tall and rather tubby, with neatly brushed brown hair that was slowly but surely receding from his forehead. Hannah thought that he was a local man, possibly a merchant.
"Hannah, this is Mr Leopold Everett. Mr Everett, this is my daughter, Hannah."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Everett." Leopold said jovially, reaching out to shake Hannah's hand. "Your mother always speaks so highly of you."
Margaret eagerly gestured for Hannah to sit next to Leopold and began to pour the tea.
"Where did you and Mother meet?" Hannah asked, not quite sure what was happening.
"Mr Everett was good enough to walk me home from church a few months ago." Margaret explained. "It was the day of that terrible rain, do you recall? He had an umbrella, you see. Well, the two of us got talking, and I decided that I simply must invite him to take tea." Margaret sat down, looking expectantly at her daughter.
Hannah stared back. Her mother was telling her something, she just knew it. But what?
"Do you have a family, Mr Everett?" Hannah asked slowly.
That was the wrong question. An odd, sad look crossed Leopold’s face. It was quickly smoothed away.
"I'm widowed. We have no children." He said briefly, and Hannah wished that she hadn't asked.
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"It can’t be helped." Leopold shrugged and sipped his tea.
An awkward silence descended. After a moment or two, Margaret spoke up, and more or less directed the conversation from there. Hannah slowly became aware that her mother was trying to pull her into the conversation, directing Leopold Everett’s attention to her. She became more and more obvious, turning to Hannah and saying things like, "Hannah, why don’t you tell Mr Everett about…" or, "Mr Everett, you must hear Hannah talk about…"
It was a huge relief when Leopold finally got to his feet, thanked them both profusely for the tea, and said his goodbyes. He lumbered out of the parlour, his large frame altogether too big for the small, delicate space. Hannah waited until she was sure he was gone before she spoke.
"Mother, are you trying to make a match between me and Leopold Everett?" Hannah asked bluntly.
Margaret flushed. "It would be a good match, Hannah."
"He's old enough to be my father!"
"That's not a bad thing." Margaret insisted. "You need someone stable. He's rich, too, and he was a good husband to his wife. Listen, Hannah." Margaret leaned forward, taking Hannah’s hand in hers. "I’m not trying to be cruel. I'm thinking of you."
"It doesn’t feel like it." Hannah remarked sourly.
Margaret sighed. "I know better than anyone what it's like to go through life without a husband to support me. We both know what it is to suffer and to be poor. I don’t want that life for you. I don’t want you to have to be a housemaid, to work your fingers to the bone just to scrape out a living. Mr Everett has money to pay for the education you’ve always dreamed of, and the connections to get you there. I want you to be happy, Hannah."
"And you think marrying Leopold Everett will make me happy?"
"I think it will remove a lot of the reasons you have to be sad." Margaret said, frankly.
"I want to marry for love."
"I know who you’re thinking of." Margaret said sharply, then glanced at the door, voice lowering as if she might be overheard. "And I don't think I need to tell you that it won’t do."
Hannah blushed a bright scarlet, the curse of all redheads. "I don’t know what you’re talking about."
Margaret looked pityingly at her. "Oh, darling. I do so want you to be happy. Do you think that I don’t see how you look at him? I always knew that the two of you growing up together would end badly, but I just thought… Oh, I don't know. I don't know how I thought this would end. I was too caught up in the wonderful education you would get, and what lovely manners and opportunities you would have, better than any other housekeeper's daughter. I was a fool, I suppose."
"Alec and I are… just friends." Hannah managed.
"I know you are. But that's all it’ll ever be. You must know that, Hannah."
"Of course, I know that. I never expected…"
"He's a duke." Margaret said softly. "You're a housemaid's daughter. I ought never to have encouraged you two to be friends, but now it’s time to grow up, my darling girl. Lord Alec—it's better if you call him that, you know, to remind yourself of who you are and who he is—is not for you. It’s time to think of the future. You can’t have him, Hannah."
Hannah opened her mouth to say something, to argue, to say that her mother was quite, quite mistaken, but all that came out was a choked sob. She got to her feet, nearly knocking over the well-worn old chair, and went racing out of the parlour. Margaret didn't try to follow her.
* * *
The servants" quarters were in the attics, right up under the eaves of the house. That meant that Hannah had to go running up flight after narrow flight of stairs, skirts lifted to avoid tripping because her eyes were blurred with tears, and she was terrified that she would slip.
It was a relief to finally step onto the landing of the female servants" wing. Hannah’s legs and feet were twinging and sore from her mad dash up there.
Those stairs were wretched.
Of course, no one was around at that time of day, and Hannah was able to slip into her room unobserved.
Hannah’s room was a spare, bare little space, but at least she had a room to herself. Most of the maids had to share. In the corner stood a narrow, well-made bed, with a nightstand just large enough to hold a candle and a book. There was a chair, a dresser, and a small mirror propped above a chipped porcelain washing bowl. There was a window in the sharply slanting roof, with no curtain. In the summer, light came streaming in early in the morning and waking Hannah. There was a colourful patchwork rug on the bare floorboards, matching the quilt on the bed.
It was home, such as it was. Hannah sank down onto her bed, feeling numb after all her running. Tears had dried on her cheeks, and it seemed that no more were coming.
She felt such a fool. Her mother was right. Of course, she was right, and what had Hannah done? Cried and stormed out, like a child. Where had she thought her fancy for Alec would end? Marriage? A whirlwind romance, approved of by high society? No, that would never—could never—happen.
Oh, it was nonsense. The second son of a duke, marrying a housekeeper's daughter? She didn’t even have her own position in the household. She was just Margaret’s daughter, helping out here and there and doing the accounts.
It’s time to think of the future. That was what Margaret had said. Hannah took a moment, sitting there on her narrow, cold little bed, to imagine her future.
She imagined herself, old and past her prime, still working her fingers to the bone. What would happen when Margaret died or got too old to work? Hannah wouldn't be able to care for her. She didn’t even have a wage now. She had no money, no real savings. The best she could hope for was to inherit the position of housekeeper. If, after Margaret died or left, the position of housekeeper were given to someone else, it was all over for Hannah. Her prospects were gone.
And what about Alec? The high-bred local families seemed very eager to secure his acquaintance. Sooner or later, he would give in. He would meet some nice young woman, wealthy and well-bred, of course. She wouldn't have ugly red hair and a face full of freckles. No, she'd be a willowy beauty with creamy skin and several thousand pounds a year.
Hannah closed her eyes. Alec would marry this faceless beauty, and his friendship with Hannah would fade away into nothing. They would be… acquaintances, perhaps? He might come to talk with her about the household accounts, every now and then. They'd nod at each other, polite as strangers.
"Lord Alec," she'd say.
"Hannah, it's good to see you," he’d reply jovially. A meaningless pleasantry.
If she did become housekeeper, it would be Alec's beautiful, elegant society wife that Hannah would meet with every day. She'd stand in front of her, take orders for which rooms to open for guests, what foods to serve. The Duchess would talk languidly, absently admiring the pale smoothness of one of her perfect hands. Hannah would twist her red, work-roughened hands into her apron and listen quietly.
There would be no pretence at friendship between her and Alec anymore.
Hannah leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees, burying her face in her hands. It was too awful.
But that is your future, a nasty voice in her head reminded her. That is what will happen, like it or not.
Suddenly, the idea of being an older man's cherished and pampered wife didn’t seem so bad. But Hannah knew that nothing would ever extinguish the picture of Alec that burned in her heart.
But by heaven, she wished something would. She longed for a cure.
Hannah lay in her little attic bed for a while. There was no clock up there, so she had no real way to tell the time. No doubt she wouldn't be missed.
She'd been staring at the slanted wooden ceiling for some time when a soft tap came on the door.
"Who is it?" Hannah asked, not taking her eyes off the ceiling.
"It's me, Hannah. It's Edith."
Hannah swung her legs off her bed, smoothing back her hair. It was twisted into a braided bun at the nape of her neck, but tendrils had escaped around her temples and ears.
"What's the matter, Edith?"
The door cracked open and mousy little Edith, the scullery maid, peeped inside.
"There you are, Hannah. I’ve been looking for you for ages. Mr Adams wants to see you."
Hannah sighed. "Work never ends, does it?
"Alright. I'll be down directly."
* * *
Hannah navigated the maze that was Raven House without thinking twice. The house was huge, with a veritable rabbit warren of servants" hallways and secret staircases beneath. New servants often got lost, and it took days or even weeks for them to get their bearings. Outside, there were dozens of outbuildings, barns, and conservatories. Hannah, however, didn’t even break her stride. She knew exactly where to go. She wove her way through the kitchen and walked out across the courtyard.
The estate steward’s offices were in the largest outbuilding. Hannah pushed open the door and stepped inside, lifting her skirts out of the dried mud and straw on the ground. Alec and Robert were inside, leaning over a large account book and murmuring to each other.
Alec was clutching papers, looking pale and worried. Hannah frowned, noticing how tired and ill he appeared.
She longed to smooth back his irrepressible curls from his forehead.
Hannah did no such thing, of course. She smiled tightly at the two men.
"I'm going to guess that this isn't good."
"It's not." Robert said brusquely. "I'll keep this as simple as I can. Alec, do you recall how neither of us could understand how the late duke had come to owe so much money?" He pulled back and deposited a handful of crumpled IOUs and other promises to pay scribbled on bits of paper.
"Gambling." Hannah murmured. She glanced over at Alec. His face was ashen.
"No." he said firmly. "Father wouldn’t. He…" The firmness drained out of his voice as he sifted through the papers. Each one bore the late duke's signature.
"He mortgaged the house and land to pay off his debts." Robert explained shortly. "It didn't take much digging to unearth all of this. I have more evidence if you'd like to…"
"No, no." Alec said, sinking onto a seat, waving a limp hand in a dismissive gesture. “This is enough. It's too much. I just can’t believe that… my father would throw away our future and reputation for… what? Gambling tables? Betting on horses?" He bit his lip, squeezing his eyes closed.
Hannah felt as if she were intruding on a private moment. Alec looked as if his world were crumbling around his ears. The old duke had never been considered a paragon of virtue, but he was certainly a good man. He had no real vices, besides his habit of drowning his sorrows after the death of the duchess.
"I believe that most of the money was lost after… Lord Christopher’s death." Robert continued, obviously determined to wring every awful detail out of the story. "I notice that the bills and IOUs began to come in earnest when Lord Christopher’s illness began to manifest itself. My guess is that the late duke was attempting to cope with his grief."
"Don’t." Alec whispered softly.
"That's enough, Robert." Hannah said firmly. "We're in a bad enough situation as it is."
Robert didn't look sympathetic at all. He gathered up the stained and crumpled bits of paper, smoothing them out and laying them neatly in a file. He turned to place the file in his bookcase, where all the account books and estate documents were neatly kept in order.
"Can we pay them back?" Alec managed, his voice still a little wobbly.
"Technically, they are paid back." Robert said, not turning around. "Debts of honour, and all that. The late Duke mortgaged the estate and still only managed to pay some of his gambling debts. Now the estate is mortgaged to the hilt, but there are still debts remaining. Not honourable debts to gentlemen, mind you. Debts to bookmakers and other men of distinctly unsavoury businesses. Bad creditors," he added bitterly.
Alec leaned forward, covering his face with his hands. He groaned, and Hannah wanted so badly to put her arm around his broad shoulders.
But now wasn't the time for pointless, emotional nonsense. Alec needed help and support, not embraces.
"Surely there's something that can be done?" Hannah asked, hoping desperately that Robert had some sort of plan. It was apparent from Alec's misery and haunted eyes that he had no plans.
It was easy to forget that the man had lost his father—the last of his family—only a few days previously.
"I don’t know." Robert said, killing any hope Hannah might have had of a miraculous rescue. "I wanted to talk to you, Hannah, and Mrs Rutherford, about cutting costs in the house."
"That reminds me, the butcher and greengrocer both want paying," she said.
Alec moaned. "No more pork chops." He peered out from over his fingers. "Robert, you ought to talk to Hannah. She’s awfully good at numbers and accounts. Perhaps between the two of you, you'll be able to find…"
"I won’t be able to find the money to pay our debts just from this estate." Robert said, sinking down at his desk again. He ran a hand absently across the close-packed writing on the ledger. "I'm not a magician. The numbers won’t have it, and that’s that."
"Lots of people live on nothing a year." Alec said, hope brightening in his eyes. "Father used to say it. He always said that if you can keep up an appearance, creditors keep lending, until you can find a solution."
Robert shrugged. 'that probably works for transient city sorts, who can afford to pack up and move on whenever creditors lose patience. I’m afraid that for an estate like this there'll be a slow but steady dismantling. Bits of the estate will be chopped off and sold until the debt is paid, or all the money and land is gone. It's a slow and painful process."
"And there’s no solution?"
Robert hesitated. "You could consider investments."
There was a little pause.
"What do you mean?" Hannah asked, a trifle suspicious.
"It's gambling, only on a larger scale and more respectable." Robert explained, a hint of irony in his voice. "Gentlemen like you collect capital and invest it into something. For example, merchandise. You might pay for a cargo to be taken overseas and sold, and you could make quite a tidy profit. With enough of these investments, carefully calculated and properly profitable, a gentleman could quickly restore his fortunes. Still, Alec, I want you to know that I don’t recommend this course of action. As I said, it's respectable gambling—and we all know that gambling rarely ends well. Bad investments will be far, far worse than no investments at all."
Alec considered this, biting his lip. A worry line appeared between his brows, and he looked up at Hannah.
"What would you do, Hannah?"
Hannah didn't rush to answer. Robert fidgeted impatiently, but Alec waited in silence for Hannah's reply.
"I don’t know." Hannah confessed. "It would depend on the investments. But to be frank, I'm not sure what else we can do. Where would the capital come from, Robert?"
"Well, we have a lot of ready monies, believe it or not. However, that money will soon be eaten up by debt payments. As I said, we could invest this money, but if we receive no return, we'll find ourselves seriously out of pocket. I don't want you to make rash decisions, Alec. This is a serious matter, more serious than I think you realise. Still, the final decision, I must stress, is yours."
Alec chewed his lip harder. Hannah winced on his behalf—he was going to draw blood if he wasn't careful.
They were interrupted by a light tap at the door.
"Who is it?" Robert snapped.
"It's me, sir. It’s James."
James was the last footman taken on. He was the youngest and lowest ranked of the footmen but had made himself liked and likeable by his charm and ready wit. He was tall and well-built, filling out the footman's livery perfectly.
But now that Hannah knew how badly their situation was, she noticed that the green velvet around James" shoulders and sleeves was worn from use. His cuffs were clean but worn from washing, and the gold trim that decorated the livery was now more of a dull brown than gold. Seams stretched where they'd been mended too many times, and invisible stitching was becoming visible.
The livery was falling apart, with the household frantically stitching and washing and stretching, trying desperately to make something last a little longer.
How long had they been like this? Hannah found that she couldn't remember a time before their "no waste" rule in the kitchen. Susanna, the cook, had griped often about not being permitted to make too many courses. Things had been tight for a while, but Hannah had always brushed it off as mere frugality, as her mother's way of pinching pennies.
Had Margaret known? Perhaps she hadn’t known the details of their situation, but she had surely noticed that something was wrong.
James fidgeted under their scrutiny. He'd never quite mastered the grace of a footman, clever and entertaining though he was.
"What is it, James?" Alec asked, sounding distant.
"Pardon me, My Lord, but you’ve guests up at the house."
James nodded furiously. "A lady and a gentleman. He didn’t say much, but she never stopped talking. Told me off for being too tall, she did. She said that a duke's footman should be six foot one exactly, and I had to be six five at least. Where’s the sense in that, sir?"
"That sounds like Lord and Lady Dumbarton." Alec said wearily.
"I thought it odd, sir, them coming only the day after the funeral. Those other ladies and gentlemen came, but…"
"It's alright, James." Alec said, smiling wanly. "I suppose this is how it's to be. If I’m to cultivate friends now that Father is gone, I’d better go and welcome my guests. Hannah, Robert, if you’d excuse me."
They nodded silently. Hannah found herself worrying at how drawn and miserable Alec looked. She longed to step forward and touch his arm and whisper in his ear, asking him whether he would be alright.
That wouldn't be proper, though. Perhaps a few years ago she would have done it.
Before Christopher died, leaving Alec with a duke's destiny.
But not now, and not in front of Robert and James. Hannah smiled wanly back at Alec, who turned to follow James out into the courtyard.
It was a cloudy day now, not brilliant and sunny like yesterday. A light drizzle was starting to fall.
Alec paused on the threshold and turned to look over his shoulder at Robert.
"Oh, and Robert?"
"My answer is yes." Alec paused a while longer, drumming his long fingers on the wood of the door frame, expression twisted as though he doubted himself or wanted to take it back.
He didn't. He gave a sharp nod and a smile, and stepped out into the courtyard, closing the door softly behind him.
That left Robert and Hannah alone. She smiled awkwardly at him and turned to go. After all, there was nothing to discuss now Alec had gone. Hannah and Robert had been friends—of sorts. Alec was the one that connected them, and Hannah often thought that Robert disapproved of her dreams of education.
"Excuse me," she murmured. "I should get on and help Mother and Susanna with the tea."
"Stay a moment."
The request surprised Hannah, a little. While they weren't a house that insisted on rigid propriety, a male and female servant closeted together in a private outbuilding for too long would certainly raise eyebrows. Now that Alec was under closer scrutiny from his peers, he would have to keep his household in order. Disobedient maids and cheeky footmen were dismissed without references every day, and moral laxness in the servants—well. That was the stuff of whispered and horrified gossip around genteel tea tables.
But this was Robert, Hannah's friend.
"Alright." Hannah said. "Just for a moment."