It had been observed through much of his life that His Grace Christopher Wilmot, Duke of Kerrington, resembled nothing so much as a predator. One courtier had tittered that it was a shame that the falcon crest was forever tarnished, relegated to being associated with tragedy and treason in the form of the Boleyns, as his blue eyes were piercing and direct as a raptor’s.
A more discerning observer would liken him more to some species of big cat, all lean muscle and coiled energy; indeed, he had a habit of stalking from room to room in his London home like a caged tiger. Recent years had seen this purposeful energy turned inward, and the duke had become closed off, reticent even.
Even now, as he stood in the early spring air in the walled gardens of his fashionable Mayfair townhouse, Christopher was as closed-off and unreadable as a statue. Though he was tall, stately, and the picture of dignified grace from his dark, waving hair to his impeccably shined boots, he found himself at a loss. His world was narrow, and his gaze rarely left his only daughter, Emma.
She was dark and serious, like himself, and prone to observing the world through her large blue eyes. She was at this very moment engaged in closely studying the various flowers of the garden, occasionally reaching out to touch the petals with one daring finger when Nanny’s back was turned.
Her cousin, only a year younger than she, romped along the bricked garden path noisily, pretending he was a dashing soldier, charging down French soldiers on a mighty steed. Emma rigorously ignored him; she ignored everything around her. She was quiet—Quiet for far too long, Christopher mused sadly.
“Brother,” an impatient voice broke into his reverie. Christopher was vaguely aware that someone had asked him a question, likely more than once. He turned from his daughter, and found his younger brother, Lord Thomas, staring at him with a measure of annoyance. Anyone could tell they were brothers: They both possessed trim but athletic physiques, and thick black hair that they were both prone to running their hands through during times of distress. Thomas, however, was a man of action and easy words — qualities that served him well on the battlefield and in the ballroom respectively.
“Forgive me Thomas, my mind was elsewhere,” Christopher said.
“It was not — it was on Emma, as it always is,” Thomas retorted. “Mother and I were discussing her just now ourselves.”
Christopher instantly felt himself tense defensively. The Dowager Duchess Sophia Wilmott sat in her chair beneath the large oak tree that dominated that corner of the garden. She favoured dark jewel-toned silks and black lace caps, and she beckoned her sons to her imperiously with one gloved hand.
A footman hovered a couple feet behind her, having placed tea paraphernalia on the small table at her elbow. She pulled her black shawl tighter about her in defiance of the cool breeze, and waited for her sons to approach like vassals. She was not a cruel woman — she just innately understood the Correct Thing, and expected everyone around her to behave accordingly.
“Now, there is no need to look so grim,” Sophia chided her eldest son. “It is a simple matter. Emma is growing into a young lady; Nanny should have been released already.”
Christopher lifted his chin defiantly. “Emma is fond of Nanny, and I haven’t wanted to … upset her with change.”
Sophia raised her hand, halting his defence. “My dear, I do not question your motives — we all feel tenderly for the girl, and want what is best for her.” Christopher clasped his hands behind his back, inclining his head to indicate that he was listening. “Consider: She is the daughter of a duke, your only daughter, and that status requires certain education. You should engage the services of a governess so that Emma might have foundations in French, drawing, and music; masters will be required later, of course, but a governess is an essential early stage in her training.”
Christopher’s gaze wandered over the pastoral scene in the gardens again. The thick garden walls insulated them from the sounds of the streets outside; the young lime trees and flowers were on the precipice of blooming. Thomas’ son William was boisterously attacking a rosebush, much to Nanny’s growing distress. Emma, in stark contrast to her cousin, was stood in a corner, watching silently. A wave of emotion passed over the duke for his silent daughter. She hadn’t spoken to him, nor Nanny, nor anyone since….
Thomas and Sophia watched Christopher closely as his hands clenched spasmodically behind his back for a moment and a muscle in his jaw worked.
“Christopher, she isn’t improving—what harm is there in trying a change?” Thomas said pragmatically. “Are you really doing her a favour by keeping her locked away like a cursed princess?”
Sophia, sensing Christopher’s temper flaring, diplomatically poured and offered tea before harsh words could be exchanged. Tea cups in hand, civility resumed, although the duke still had not unclenched his jaw enough to take a drink. “Thomas has a point,” the dowager said gently, “though we come to it in different ways. Your daughter, as the only child of a duke, will forever be subject to scrutiny; it is entirely possible that she will serve in the Princess of Wales’ household, or even for the Queen-Mother. It is vital that she we provide her proper training, for her own good.”
The duke turned, letting the pragmatic logic of his mother’s and brother’s words wash over him. His starched white cravat and high collar points felt like a poor substitute for armour — a new member of the household was unpleasant, and made him feel strangely vulnerable. Of course, he would do anything for his daughter. Emma turned, her stark white pinafore making her look a bit like a swan among the meticulously pruned hedges. Her sapphire-blue eyes were watching them carefully, like a doe sizing up a hunter.
“You’re right, of course,” the duke said decisively. Once presented with a course of action, Christopher was wont to consider all information carefully; once decided, he would firmly set forth on a course of action, like a general deciding a battle plan, and nothing would sway him from his goal. “I do wish for Emma to have the opportunity to flourish, and I … have been neglecting my duties, both domestically and at court.”
Thomas and Sophia exchanged looks behind Christopher’s back. His shoulders were squared strongly, as if good posture could keep the hurt from his next words from penetrating into him.
“Besides, perhaps a new face will induce her to speak again, someone she can trust and spend time with.” His eyes were fixed on his daughter. “Perhaps she will be able to connect with a governess, and speak again… A duke cannot have a silent daughter.”
It would have been unfair to judge Amelia Leighton’s position based on the current circumstances of her family. True, she lived at a respectable address in Cheapside, and the Leighton family strove to maintain its appearance of gentility. Amelia, eldest daughter of the house, personally did not hold to maintaining this façade — she believed in reality and facing it, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. But she was also a dutiful daughter, and if her dear father wished to attend this pretext of carrying on much as they had before, then she wouldn’t openly oppose him.
The Leighton family was old, respectable, and once comfortably nestled in the gentry; Amelia’s ancestors had lived tolerably well on the income generated from land and tenants. Her father, Mr. George Leighton, had taken it into his head to be discontent with his lot and his inheritance, an ambitious streak that led him to investing in trade — a shocking move for a man of his status. All nay-sayers were forced to contend with his success, however, as the family fortune increased.
However ambitious Mr. Leighton was, he was not prepared for competition, and his investments floundered, forcing him to discreetly sell holdings of land. The family was thus living in reduced circumstances, though he was determined to maintain their address at Cheapside, the last bastion of their respectability.
Amelia, currently seated in the front parlour with windows overlooking the noisy street, was engaged in attempting to plan menus for the week. “Menus” might have been optimistic — in truth, she was attempting to juggle the budget and the needs of the household, which included herself, her father, a younger sister, a younger brother, the long-time cook, and one understairs maid.
There was also a part-time outside man who tended to the maintenance of the house, ran errands, and mostly sat in the doorway to the kitchen and smoked his pipe. The calculating of the facts and figures did not trouble Amelia, for she was richly educated beyond most women her age; rather, it was the lack of funds.
Pushing one auburn-coloured Grecian curl from her forehead, Amelia sighed and pulled her shawl more snuggly around her shoulders. She wanted to pinch the bridge of her nose, as she regularly did when she was distressed, but resisted the urge lest she gift herself with an unfortunate ink smudge. She stood, deciding that she had done the best she could. Cook would need to prepare her lists for the week, and Robert, the outside man, usually had an ear to the ground regarding a merchant with oranges or fish going cheap.
The dark wood floors creaked beneath Amelia’s leather boots as she made her way to the kitchen stairs. She paused for a moment to consider the dim interior of her home — beeswax candles were expensive, and sunlight ruined carpets and upholstery that they could ill-afford to replace. She shook her head to clear it; None of that, she admonished herself. You are warm, comfortable, and surrounded by love. What right have you to complain? Squaring her shoulders, she pressed onward, ducking her head beneath the low head jam. In fairness to the doorway, Amelia was rather taller than the average maid and servant that were expected to be the only ones using said doorway a century prior.
She knew she should have a gentleman’s daughter’s apprehension of the kitchen, but Amelia loved it; it was always warm, comforting, and smelled like baking — much like Cook, the heavy-set empress of the domestic domain. She greeted Amelia with a smile, her hands covered in flour as she prepared a pie crust. Amelia laid the paper with the week’s meals on it on a convenient sideboard, and reached for a spare apron to cover her patterned calico day dress.
“Where are Kit and Charles?” she asked as she slid the apron straps over her shoulders, reaching to tie them behind her. Cook tilted her head, indicating the open doorway to the back alley where Robert was perched on his customary wooden crate, pipe in hand.
Amelia leaned over to glimpse her younger siblings, who were engaged in some sort of game involving skipping stones across the cobbles. She smiled affectionately at them, then took up a stool near the thick wooden table Cook was rolling the pie crust out on. Never one to shirk from practical responsibilities, Amelia reached for a bowl of peas and began deftly snapping them from their husks into a smaller bowl.
“Soon it’s going to be a trial to get a joint of some sort at market at a decent price, now that the bettermost folk are thinking of coming up to London,” Cook observed. Amelia sighed and nodded.
“Kit’s nearly grown out of her boots too, and Jonathon’s school fees will be upon us before I know it,” Amelia said, her green eyes fixed on the doorway. “I don’t know how much longer we can afford to pay Lucy, either,” she added.
Cook hummed an agreement. “Rober’ says some of the slates look nigh on ready to crack come frost this autumn too .” Robert shuffled at hearing his name, and tapped his pipe on his wooden crate in lieu of speaking, his traditional means of expressing agreement.
Amelia’s hands slowed a little as an idea began taking root. “I…think I need to find a position,” she said slowly. Cook looked up, pie crust draped over her hands as she was about to place it in the dish. “Though I cannot earn much, it would make a difference to us, at least until Charles is earning.”
“Your father will object,” Cook said, resuming motion.
“I expect he will,” Amelia agreed. “But I’m well-educated, and from a good family, that’s more than most country girls coming up to London for work can say. Besides,” she hurried on, the truth making her speak faster and faster, “I’m not suited for marriage. No, I know I am not,” she said over Cook’s noises of objection. “I’m too tall, too headstrong, and soon I will be too old. I don’t like parties, I don’t know how to flirt, and I have no interest in either. This could be a way for me to ensure some kind of security if I find a good family to work for. Besides, maybe I could put a little by so Kit can make a decent match when the time comes.”
Cook and Robert exchanged a clandestine look, unsure who Amelia was convincing. “Well…I’ll see abou’ keeping my ears open for any positions gone wanting,” Cook finally relented. Amelia favoured her with a small smile. “It doesn’t seem right though, a gentleman’s daughter and all…”
“Gentleman’s daughters still feel hunger, same as everyone else. Kit’s old enough to start learning how to run this house, and she’ll have you to help her,” Amelia said, reaching across the work table to affectionately squeeze Cook’s hand, which Cook patted in return.
Having reached this conclusion, Amelia set her mind to it. She would ask her friends to begin making discrete inquiries for a good situation. Though her practical nature was pleased by this most pragmatic of decisions, there was a smaller, sadder part of herself that lamented that she would be henceforth without the possibility of ever attending a ball again, relegated to servant’s dances; there would be no courtship, no suitors paying calls … n o romance. The rest of her family would see her head held high, her serene composure at her new circumstance; but right now, for one small moment as she walked up the stairs to her corner room with a heavy step, she allowed herself this passing sadness.
Sunlight filtered in dreamily through the leaded windows of the nursery, bathing the toys, the cot bed with embroidered bedspread, and, most importantly, Emma in a golden light. The walls were richly covered in pale green and silver, reflecting the sunlight and casting a glow the hue of a magic forest.
Nanny was in her customary spot in the corner by the tiny fireplace, a spartan chair with a foot stool that tucked underneath when not in use. The duke hovered in the doorway, observing Emma as she silently moved her toys around. Nanny, her hands engaged in the endless task of sock darning, glanced up and saw his tall frame casting a long shadow across the India rug that covered the wood floor of the nursery.
“Good morning, Your Grace,” Nanny said, scrambling to her feet to bob the requisite curtsy. The duke nodded in kind, acknowledging her without really seeing her, his keen eyes still focused on Emma. “It’s a treat to see you in the nursery this morning, isn’t it Emma? Come now, you must greet your father. ‘Honour thy father,’ Emma,” Nanny chivvied the child, but to no avail. Emma only lifted her large, sad eyes to her father, and stared at him without speaking for a moment , then went back to her doll. Christopher lifted his chin as Nanny shot him an uneasy glance.
In a manner that would have impressed the stuffiest of generals, Christopher turned on his well-heeled boot, arms behind his back, and strode from the room. The sudden turn to the comparative darkness of the hallway nearly blinded him, but he pushed on. I should have spoken to her, he berated himself. He was aware that his daughter should have been upbraided for refusing to speak to her father, but how could he when he likewise did not know what to say to her?
He could feel the sorrow that bound them together like a silk thread, and he did not know how to break it. He was an Englishman after all, not an Italian or some other Continental who could just give voice to his feelings freely.
His steps had carried him automatically through the upper gallery and down the stairs to the main floor of his fashionable townhouse without his realising; he had paused by force of habit at the door to the music room. Christopher had no wish to step inside, and yet, he couldn’t stop his hand, drawn by an unseen impulse, from twisting the knob on one of the fashionable French doors and looking in.
Once his favourite room in the house, it was dark and musty, with stark white sheets draped over all the furnishings like ghosts rising out of the dark. The heavy drapes were pulled shut firmly against the spring sunshine.
Of course, it had not always been this way. Not so long ago, but a lifetime away, the room had been golden and light, full of laughter and music, the doors wide open to the rest of the house so that the music within could carry to the other rooms. More than once the duke had caught servants loitering just outside the doorway to listen and peek in at the performance; he couldn’t blame them, and instead favoured them with a smile which they returned sheepishly.
Like a mirage, he could see it now: His first wife, his Cassandra, seated behind the harp, the sunlight from the large windows illuminating her and creating a halo of her blonde hair around her head. The smile on her face lit up her face as her arms moved languidly, her delicate fingers plucking the strings in perfect time.
She always looked like an angel at her harp, Christopher thought. Like he was stuck in some sort of magic lantern show, he was helpless to stop the scene from playing out in his head.
“Did you know that hearts with irregular rhythm respond to the harp? And some wild beasts, too. A man of science told me that once, or a doctor perhaps,” Cassandra said, her smile broadening as Christopher stood next to her.
“Well, that explains how you were able to tame the duke,” Thomas teased, jabbing a good-natured elbow into the duke’s ribs.
Cassandra laughed in response, clear and light as a bell. She opened her arms, and a toddler in a pinafore walked into them, her black ringlets a stark contrast against Cassandra’s Emma. She placed her daughter on her lap, not caring in the slightest if she creased her dress, encouraging the girl to reach her plump little arms to the strings of the harp. Cassandra laughed again in delight, head thrown back and without reserve, as Emma caught a string and produced a single note.
“Clearly a virtuoso in the making,” the d owager said with an indulgent smile, to which the assembled laughed good-naturedly.
“She should be, with such a mother for a teacher,” the duke responded proudly, touching his wife’s rosy cheek. So full of love, so full of happiness…
So full of life.
The duke pulled himself up sharply like a horse that was runaway. The memory faded around him like the sun was setting, and he was left standing alone in a dark, dusty room. He found himself sweating and trembling beneath his weskit and open tailcoat. Despair threatened to overtake him as he was forced to compare his life then to his… well, it seemed generous to call it life; his existence now.
The sound of someone clearing their throat behind him pulled his emotions closed again as he tightly wrapped himself up in the armour of respectability and nobility. He turned to find the butler, Jenkins, standing behind him, his face perfectly impassive. He made no comment on finding the duke alone in a shut-up room, and diplomatically equally ignored his obvious emotional distress.
“The Dowager has requested that you join her in the drawing room at your earliest convenience, Your Grace,” Jenkins intoned smoothly. The duke nodded in acknowledgement, pausing as he swept past the unflappable butler only long enough to ensure the music room door latched closed again.
The silent, empty rooms he passed as he stalked to the drawing room seemed a scathing indictment against the way his house and life had formerly been arrayed; even Jenkins was a reminder of the standards that had slipped in the duke’s grief, as his prohibition against surplus staff had undoubtedly ruffled the butler’s and head housekeeper’s feathers. It wasn’t that Christopher was miserly, rather the opposite — having previously been disposed to paying his staff well, and allowing celebrations and merry-making with food and ale on high holidays — it was simply that his broken heart could not abide noise and new faces.
With these thoughts already plaguing his conscience, he was in an ill-temper for another lecture on familial duty, and was thus pre-emptively bristling as he entered the drawing room. His mother was already seated on the richly upholstered furniture, arrayed on an armchair with her hands clasped over the head of her polished ebony cane. Thomas was standing behind her in buff breeches and dark red tailcoat, looking to the duke too much like a queen and her loyal inquisitor.
“Peace, dear, there’s no reason to favour us all with a face like thunder,” the dowager chided him upon seeing Christopher’s stony expression.
The duke raised one hand before Thomas or the dowager could begin their undoubtedly carefully coordinated lecture. “I have reached a number of resolutions over the past several hours, and I believe they are for the benefit of all.” He walked to the centre of the room, framed by the modern marble fireplace and addressed the dowager and his brother in sentences so confident that indicated no argument would be brooked.
“Firstly, Mother, I believe that you will be pleased to know that I have decided you are correct. It is time for Nanny to be dismissed, and a governess engaged. It is time for her to move on,” he said succinctly, not clarifying if he meant n anny or Emma. “We will provide Nanny a good reference, and must find a qualified governess to begin immediately. As you are acting as my hostess, I leave this with you and Mrs. Miller,” he continued, naming the head housekeeper.
“We will do right by our Emma,” the dowager said proudly, preening and generous now that the duke was on her side. “You will be able to resume your duties in confidence; why, you can even begin searching for a new wife to—”
Both Thomas and the dowager stared openly at Christopher, for though he spoke quietly, there was such finality in that small, single word that it belied the iron resolve beneath it. The duke stared back at them in turn, unflinching, like a wolf establishing dominance.
“But… you’ll need a hostess, and without a male heir—”
“I do not care to wed ever again. In fact, I intend not to. I shall devote my time and energies to my daughter; we shall eventually retire to a home in the countryside.”
The dowager and Thomas both continued to stare at Christopher, shock writ large on their faces. “But… my dear, without an heir, the title—”
“Let it go to Thomas’ son. He has a living wife and can presumably sire a string of heirs to satisfy the requirements of primogeniture. More importantly, he is happy to play host to any number of members of the ton, and will be able to rectify the damage I have done to the family’s social reputation.”
Thomas twitched at hearing his name. His son a duke… He, Thomas, the father of the future duke, perhaps even himself duke… Though he was intensely proud of his small holdings, acquired largely through his own wit and skill, it was nothing compared to the dukedom… With himself charting the course for the family, it could grow into a dynasty rivalled only by the royal family. It was too much for him to consider, and he blindly reached for the arm of a chair that he sat heavily upon as Christopher exited the room in much the same manner as he left.
* * *
Thomas had never been prone to the sin of envy; it simply was not in his nature. He had understood at a young age that he was the younger brother, and that this precluded him from inheriting his father’s title. This would necessitate Thomas’ carving out his own position, an endeavour he set up about the moment he left school. He set his sights on the army, and began the task of distinguishing himself.
His own father, the late duke, had quite the illustrious military career until that unfortunate business in the colonies, and had supported his younger son’s efforts; a commission had been purchased, and Thomas determined to return an accomplished officer. It was through service to king and crown that he had secured a position and his own holdings, however meagre they might be judged in comparison to his brother’s.
He stood now in his London home, situated in Westminster, considering. Much like his brother and father, he had a tendency to stand perfectly straight, hands behind his back, though unlike them, he had rather taken to sliding one hand just inside his regimental jacket. His home was modest in comparison to his brother’s, but he was fiercely proud of it. He had carefully managed his commission, finding promotion and favour by dint of his expertise and ability to curry favour.
His wife, Lady Millicent, though everyone called her Millie , was a quiet woman, but Lord Thomas would tell anyone who cared to listen, she was not a fool. She, too, had a mind for strategy, though hers took the form of meticulously arranged dinners, a polite word in the right ear, and occasionally, a cutting word and a pointed movement of her fan. Millie, however, was not ruthless in this, she was a good foil and partner for Thomas, who occasionally had difficulty in calculating the human cost of a particular action.
He strode slowly through the rooms, stopping to watch his son, William, on the floor of the room. The boy had lined up lead soldiers, and was hunting them with a wooden tiger. William was fair and cherub-cheeked, much like Millie, but he had none of her quietness; William was a rambunctious child, full of energy and, much like his name, will. Thomas harboured elaborate plans for his son, foreseeing him as a great military hero, like his father and grandfather.
Christopher’s unexpected announcement had cast a new light on affairs. Perhaps Thomas would not be content with his son merely being a distinguished officer. Millie’s dowry had been generous, and Thomas was clever and thrifty with his own income, having smugly invested in a number of trading companies that had rooted out weaker ones , but this was still nothing compared to the dukedom. It was even possible that Thomas himself could hope to become duke before his son.
After all, Thomas reasoned as he turned from the sounds of a man-eating tiger devouring a company of soldiers bravely fighting for territory on the study rug, I have done the correct thing: I married well, the daughter of a viscount, and have sired a male heir. It was not a stretch for Thomas to entertain the notion that perhaps he might even have deserved to be duke, for his son to be heir presumptive.
In the spirit of fairness, Thomas loved his brother; the two had formed a close friendship that frequently took root between two siblings who were close in age and personality. Thomas had always been slightly smaller, leaner, which was frequently blamed on a weak constitution as a babe. This early weakness had disgusted Thomas and encouraged him to build a formidable metaphorical moat and fence around himself. For Christopher, this had engendered feelings of protection and responsibility for his little brother.
As Thomas stood looking out at the early spring rain, winter was being a rather ill-mannered guest, and did not know when to leave , he caught sight of a moderately well-dressed woman, who had paused outside his home to lean on the fence, ostensibly to catch her breath. The poor creature was thoroughly soaked, but she had the bearing and look of gentility. A lady’s maid, fetching and carrying for her mistress, Thomas mused.
This turned his thoughts to Millie, whom he loved rather more than he would ever be able to say. It was not just William that he was considering, but his lady-wife as well. Did she not deserve a bit of leisure and luxury in the latter part of her life? She was availed of a lady’s maid now, but their household staff was small, though Millie worked tirelessly to ensure the house ran smoothly and always had the appearance of being far more well-appointed than it was in truth. Millie deserved to have legions of footmen and maids to wait on her, not to have to borrow them from her brother-in-law for large dinners.
It was decided then, Thomas would voice the correct objections, but he would not press his brother to serious courtship, not unless he was certain that Christopher - and the entire family - would benefit from the match. If the duke wished to spend his life without the company of a wife, that was entirely his own affair. More to the point, Thomas understood Christopher’s intense mourning at the loss of his wife so tragically young, though he would never admit to such a surplus of sentiment. I will stand with my brother, even if it means facing that most formidable of enemies: Our mother.
To say that Amelia was feeling discouraged would be an understatement of the grossest kind. She was footsore, the hem of her best day dress and spencer were coated with mud, and frankly, that was an optimistic assessment, seeing as she had been trudging through London streets for the better part of the day , and the rain was causing her spring bonnet to wilt slightly. The care she had taken on her toilette was rapidly coming to naught, the rain having done its work in spoiling her curls and coiffure by and large. Amelia was not one for wallowing — she thoroughly believed in Getting On With It — but even she took a moment to lean against a wrought iron fence encircling a fashionable townhouse and to lament her situation.
Her leather boots were in great peril of sloshing, and she was tired, in both body and spirit. A friend had been kind enough to inform her of a situation as a lady’s maid and companion to the wife of a decorated viscount, and she had immediately set off with letters of introduction and samples of her best needlework, hoping her skills at a lady’s dressing table would be apparent enough in her person. A position as a lady’s maid would give her security, access to the best society, and opportunities for travel with her lady. She would always be well-shod and secure in a good house.
The lady of the house had been young, near Amelia’s own age, quiet, docile, and soft-spoken. Amelia was disposed to like her, but the viscount was another story: He was a brusque, loud man, who generally favoured shouting rather than speaking. While this may have been de rigueur on a battlefield, it was not an admirable quality in a fashionable house near Regent’s Park.
Amelia had made her own observations while in the house as the lady had inspected her, and she saw the covert, furtive glances the footmen exchanged when the viscount entered the house. Those secret-but-significant looks combined with the way they attempted to become invisible, more so than was expected of servants, told Amelia all that she needed to know — the master of the house was ill-tempered, and that temper would break across the backs of his servants at a moment’s notice. The lady may have been kind to Amelia, but it would not be a good household to live and work in for the next thirty-odd years.
Well, Amelia said to herself firmly, it is for certain that nothing will be achieved by my lazing about. Onward! Brief foray into moroseness dispensed with, she lifted her chin and marched toward home with renewed vigour, fuelled partly by thoughts of the warm kitchen and a restorative cup of tea.
* * *
Sophia, Dowager Duchess of Kerrington, felt at sea for the first time in quite a while. She and her husband, the late Duke of Kerrington, had carefully managed and cultivated their holdings and position to build a legacy that rivalled any in the kingdom. Decades of work training and preparing their eldest son, Christopher, to take up the reins of the family were now in danger because of grief and mourning that he couldn’t find his way out of. Thomas was a good son, always striving to please his parents, but he wasn’t the heir. T here simply wasn’t a process by which Christopher could walk away from it all in reality. Her grandson, William, was the heir apparent right now, but that was … an inelegant solution for an eligible duke.
Allowing herself one sigh, she reached for the tasselled bell pull and tugged it firmly. A liveried footman entered shortly thereafter, awaiting instruction. “Please inform Mrs. Miller that I wish to speak with her,” Sophia said, not bothering to watch the footman’s polite bow as he left the room. Her attention was fixed on the list in front of her that she had carefully scribed in neat, looping script on the tiny writing desk before her. A governess to the daughter of a duke had to match very exacting standards, doubly so with a tender bloom like Emma. Ah, Emma… the dowager duchess thought with a touch of sadness. Beneath her armour of propriety and English intransigence, Sophia was very fond of her only granddaughter, and her plight did touch her heart.
Mrs. Miller entered the drawing room, and the dowager inwardly pulled herself to readiness. After the requisite curtsy, the housekeeper stood at careful attention, hands folded together lightly at her waist, just above the large chatelaine of keys that proclaimed her status. She had served the Wilmot family for longer than she cared to remember as a girl and woman, and she knew the dowager well. They both had an innate understanding of duty, respectability, and did not shrink from either.
“Mrs. Miller, it seems that we have need of engaging the services of a governess for Lady Emma. Just any girl will not do, she must be thoroughly accomplished, educated, and…” The duchess paused, unsure of how to frame her next sentence.
Mrs. Miller nodded thoughtfully, then said, “She must be kind, as well, Lady Emma should feel secure with her.”
“Precisely. The right candidate will be held not only to the standards of the family, but my own standards as well, as Emma is a most loved granddaughter.”
“Of course, Your Grace.” Mrs. Miller began to turn to leave the drawing room, but paused and turned back. “Your Grace, I… I think I know just the girl.”
* * *
The wood range in the kitchen of the Leighton home was blessed with prodigiously large stones at the front, a remnant of the hearth that had previously been there before the range was installed, perfect for placing one’s boots on a wet, cold day so that they would dry and warm quickly, but not so warm that the leather would risk splitting.
Upon seeing Amelia enter through the back kitchen door, Cook had helped her out of her spencer, heavy with rain, then sat her near the hearth. Extraction of boots, removal of stockings, hung at a safe distance on the roasting racks , and application of one cup of warm, restorative tea had Amelia feeling less like a drowned rat.
“House don't suit you then, Miss?” Cook asked gently as she stood, slowly stirring the soup pot that was bubbling away on the top of the range. Amelia did not look up, staring into her milky tea as she shook her head slowly. Cook nodded, her mouth twisting with distaste as she spoke. “I’ve heard things about that house. Just last week there was a kitchen maid at morning market with a bruise on ‘er cheek that everyone pretended not to see.”
Amelia didn’t look up, but it was clear from her hunched posture that she was very much feeling the entire weight of the household on her. Maybe it’s all a folly, she thought. Why should I be offered a position in a grand house, or any other house? Most servants have worked since they could carry a bucket; what have I to offer?
“Lady’s maid ain’t right for you — your mind would’ve wasted away there,” Cook said authoritatively, sharply nodding her head once for emphasis. “No real chance for you to use your skills at mothering, what with you raising up your younger siblings like you have. Good place for you would be using all your talents.”
“That would be nice, wouldn’t it? To feel valued for what I do,” Amelia murmured wistfully. “I’m not sure such a place exists for a woman like me.”
“Well,” Cook said slowly, drawing a letter from her apron. “That’s just the thing, you know my sister is housekeeper in a grand house?”
“I had forgotten, in all honesty you’ve always been a part of our family, so I forget you have one of your own.”
Cook smiled indulgently at Amelia, patting her cheek affectionately. “My sister, Mercy Miller, Mrs. Miller, if you please, has been tasked with helping the lady of the house find a governess for the young daughter of her master, a duke even. Do you think that would suit, Miss Amelia?” Cook said with a sly smile.
Amelia stared at the neatly folded letter as Cook passed it to her, the return directions for the nicest part of Mayfair. She read the neatly scripted lines again and again, not daring to breathe lest the spell of good fortune be broken.
“Well?” Cook demanded. “What should I write and tell my high and mighty sister?”
Amelia looked up at her, her eyes shining, a smile spreading across her face like a sunrise after a rainy night.