“Then we have a deal.” Thomas stood to his feet and buttoned up his tailcoat, smiling at the gentleman who sat across from him on the other side of the desk. The gentleman did not seem enamoured with the business deal they had agreed upon. He kept rubbing the lines in his long forehead and scratching at his nose, making the ruddy skin in the pale candlelight seem a burnt orange. “Or would you like to rethink my proposal?”
“No, Your Grace. I happily agree to the deal.” The gentleman moved to his feet and offered his hand. “I was forewarned the Duke of Montbury was a good businessman, with a keen eye for investments and a manner that is ruthless in terms of a deal. You would think I would have been better prepared.”
“Ruthless, but fair, am I not?” Thomas asked, determined to impress the matter upon him. It wasn’t that he was a cruel man in business, far from it. He simply knew the truth, that merchants and tradesmen were fond of fleecing men such as him on their investments to get the most out of their own capital. The way Thomas did business, everyone earned their fair share.
“Yes, indeed. Thank you, Your Grace. I will have the contracts written up and sent to you at once.”
“Thank you.” Thomas smiled and bowed, offering his goodbye before he left the building.
As he walked, there was a spring in his step, a lightness under his arches in the Hessian boots that had not been there before. It was always the way. He would have the bit between his teeth until he closed a deal and then celebrate for a short while, before he set his eyes on the next deal ahead of him.
It’s the way I am, Thomas thought to himself. It’s how I survive. I hunt the next deal.
As he stepped out of the tall building and hurried down the porch steps, he found his footman waiting for him outside of his carriage. The light was dim tonight, the glow of the moon offering a feeble aura of white light on the dark streets. Thomas looked up and down the streets, nevertheless, trying to seek out some sort of semblance of anything in the darkness.
When his eyes spied a pair at the far end of the street, the lightness in his step faded. It was a couple, a man and a woman, with a servant walking behind them. Evidently, they were returning home from some evening event, for Thomas could see in the faint moonlight that the couple was dressed well. The gentleman had a frock coat, and the lady’s pelisse shimmered like liquid silver in the moonlight.
The couple laughed together about some bright jest. Thomas faltered as he watched them, his eyes tarrying on the happiness of the pair.
How long has it been since I laughed in such a way?
He watched as the gentleman took the lady’s hand, possibly his wife’s, and lifted it to his lips, kissing the back with true affection.
Thomas felt guilty as he watched them, as if he was prying on a very personal moment, like a thief spying through a window with his face pressed against the glass. He jerked his head away and stared down at his feet.
Do not think of her now. I do better when I choose not to think of her.
Thomas had learned some time ago he was wise to bear heartbreak by choosing to ignore it. He’d grieved for the loss of the love he’d cherished for a while, before he had realised that love was never truly there, not on her part, anyway. It only existed in himself.
“Your Grace?” The footman standing by the carriage cleared his throat, trying to get Thomas’ attention.
“Yes, I am coming.” He glanced toward the couple again, but they were gone. They must have disappeared round a corner in the road, though it appeared to him more like they were ghosts, there one second, then gone the next, merely a haunting sent to tempt him with what might have been, but now never would be.
Gathering himself, Thomas stepped up into the carriage and closed the door behind him. Using a vesta case, he lit the lantern that swung above him in the carriage, then closed the tiny glass door that kept the flame safe. As the carriage took off, that flame danced back and forth, casting Thomas sometimes in shadows and sometimes in light.
Despite his determination to stop thinking of what might have been, as they crossed the street at the end of the road, he pressed his face to the window, with curiosity burning. He tried to get another glimpse of the happy couple, but they were gone. They had disappeared into the shadows.
Sitting back in the carriage, he tried to think of the business deal he had just closed. He attempted to be happy, consumed by his work, as he liked to live his life, but that air of contentment had dissipated now. He thought of only one thing.
“I have to stop this,” he muttered aloud in the carriage. “You are the master of your own mind. You can just stop thinking of it all.” With these words, he put an end to the matter.
When the carriage arrived back at his Mayfair townhouse, Thomas stepped free of the carriage and walked up to his house. The butler was waiting for him and opened the door long before he even had the chance to knock.
“Good evening, Your Grace.”
“Good evening, Jacobs.” Thomas returned the pleasantry and passed over his greatcoat and top hat.
“I judge your business was successful?”
“Very successful, as it always is.” He held his head high with the words. He supposed it might sound arrogant to some, but he was simply being matter-of-fact. He didn’t let his business fail him. It was the only thing he filled his days with, so he always made sure it was a success.
“A letter arrived for you today, Your Grace.” The butler held up a silver card tray, on top of which was a letter bearing handwriting that Thomas recognised well.
“Thank you.” He took the letter. “I’ll read it in my study.”
“I’ll have the port brought for you.”
Thomas smiled and thanked the butler another time. Jacobs knew his rhythms so well; he knew that Thomas always celebrated a good business deal in the study with a glass of port.
A few minutes later, he was sat behind his desk, with his tailcoat shrugged from his shoulders, a glass of port in his hands, and a candle flickering beside him to keep him company. Holding the letter up to the candlelight, he knew exactly who had written the letter. It was from his steward in his country estate in Derbyshire.
Your Grace, the Duke of Montbury,
I pray you are well and enjoying your time in London. Forgive me if I do not fill this letter with our usual communication about your tenants and the situation in which your estate is in. Please know, all is well, and I hope not to alarm you by writing out of the blue, but it is imperative that I speak with you in person.
At your earliest convenience, may I request a meeting in person, Your Grace? If you are able to, please come to the Montbury Estate. There is something we must discuss.
Your loyal friend,
Mr Harry Banwell
Thomas found his stomach knotting tightly as he read the words. He didn’t go back to the Montbury Estate on principal these days. That place held too many memories from the past, far too many recollections of Rosalind to bear comfort.
“No, I cannot….” Yet Thomas faltered, even as he said the words aloud.
Montbury had many shadows. It wasn’t just about Rosalind, but the childhood he’d known growing up there. He preferred living in London, for it was easy to forget the darkness that hid in Derbyshire, yet he couldn’t hide forever. What was more, Thomas could not deny the steward his request.
Mr Banwell had been a good friend as well as a loyal and trustworthy steward. He’d served Thomas’ father well before him, and now Thomas equally faithfully. He knew that had it not been for Mr Banwell’s kindness and instruction, the tenants and the wider estate would not have been looked after nearly so well.
“It seems I’m going back then,” he muttered as he sat back suddenly in his chair. The movement was so sharp that the candle beside him flickered with the movement. “At least I will go guarded this time.” Thomas made a vow to himself. He would visit his home, but he would not entertain thoughts of the past. He wouldn’t think of the unhappy childhood, nor of the woman he had known so well when he lived there.
His heart would be protected. He would not expose himself to hurt again.
With this resolution, he blew out the candle beside him.
Six Days Later
“Oh, I wonder where Henry could be.” Emily put on a false wondering voice as she circled the sitting room. It was not so grand a room that she could not see where he was. The small boy was crouching behind an armchair, with his feet visible, poking out from the frame and his shadow evident from the bright sunlight that streamed through the window. “Maybe he’s in here?” She reached for the cupboard beside her and opened it a little, pretending to look inside. “Oh, no, not there.”
Her dramatic voice led the boy to snigger across the room, trying his best to stay quiet and clearly failing at the job.
“What was that sound?” Emily said, turning her head back and forth as she crept toward the armchair. The boy fell quiet.
She tiptoed as quietly as she could upon him, staying silent and holding her breath. Since she had come to stay with her cousin just a week ago, she had found these were the best moments of her time here. Danger might be hovering over her head, but when it was just her and Henry alone, nothing seemed wrong with the world.
“Is he behind the settee?” She pretended to dive behind the rococo lounge to check for his presence, but she actually darted the other way, around the armchair. “Well, well, look who I found.”
The boy looked up from where he was crouched. Bearing the same jade green eyes as her own, they grew wide as he stared at her.
“I found you!” She darted toward him, reaching out with her hands to tickle him. The boy squealed and attempted to run from her, but she caught Henry under the arms and lifted him from the floor, continuing to tickle him. He laughed and protested, all at the same time.
“No, no! Mama! No more!” he pleaded continuously before she planted him back down on the floor and embraced him from behind, holding him tight. She placed a big kiss on his cheek, watching as he shrunk away from her. “Eww, Mama.”
“Do you not like kisses from your mother? Here, I shall give you more then!” She playfully grabbed him and continued to kiss his cheek until the boy laughed. He wriggled in her hold and then fell limp, reaching up and embracing her tightly around her neck. She held him back, clinging on. “See? Kisses aren’t so bad.”
“Just don’t let anyone else see,” he said, his boyish voice light.
“There’s only you and I here,” she assured him with a whisper in his ear.
Despite being of the tender age of only eight, Henry was growing up. She had noticed more than once over the previous few months how he was becoming quite a witty boy and had an intriguing way of looking at the world. He also did this quite often. He would love Emily’s affection in private, but when they were outside, he feared that others would disapprove and think him a child.
“Knock, knock,” a voice called from the door. At once, Henry tried to wriggle out of Emily’s grasp, but she held on.
“Mama!” he complained.
“It is only my cousin,” Emily assured him.
“Fear not, Henry. If my mother was still here, I’d embrace her as tightly as you hold onto your mother.” The soft voice seemed to assure Henry, and he fell back into Emily’s arms.
Emily turned to smile at her cousin in gratitude. Mary, Mrs Thatcher since the day years ago when she had married Mr Joseph Thatcher, was quite a presence in any room. She bore the same deep black hair that Emily had, but her eyes were a bright light blue above rounded cheeks. She smiled broadly with that smile lighting up her face.
“Come, you two, church is to begin soon, and we mustn’t be late.”
“Yes, of course.” Emily put Henry down on the floor. “Now, are you ready for church, young man?” Henry stood to attention, but his hair was ruffled, and his shirt wasn’t straight. Emily combed his hair with her fingers and then straightened his shirt. At all times, Henry wriggled.
“Of course you are. You’re perfect.” She kissed him on the cheek again. “Now, hurry to the door and pop on your coat. We’ll leave shortly.”
Henry ran from the room so quickly he nearly knocked over Mary, who clutched at her chest in surprise and reached for the wall beside her.
“Goodness, that boy makes my heart go,” she said with a giggle. “How do you run after him when he has so much energy?”
“It is hard work,” Emily agreed as she stood straight and turned to the nearest mirror, checking she was prepared for church too.
Her long black hair was neat enough, tied back into a chignon with a few loose curls hanging down by her cheeks. There was no rouge on her cheeks, for she did not bother with such things these days. She hadn’t bothered with makeup since her husband had passed, and she had no wish to do so now. She reckoned God wouldn’t mind if she turned up not quite perfect.
“Speaking of hard work,” Mary whispered, glancing to the door to clearly check they had no chance of being overheard, before she hastened to Emily’s side. “Have you heard any more from your husband’s cousin?”
Emily froze to hear that man being mentioned. Mr Christopher Sheffield was a man whose very name she detested these days.
“Not yet,” Emily whispered, reluctant to talk of the matter.
“We cannot ignore this forever, Emily. You and I both know we must tackle it.”
“I know.” Emily sighed deeply and stood straight, turning away from the mirror. “There is little I can do at this moment, though, until I see what his solicitors do.” She fidgeted with her hands, wringing them together uncomfortably. “If that man wishes to fight me for custody of my son, then he will find himself up against a fierce enemy indeed.”
Mary smiled a little, the movement tweaking at her rounded cheeks.
“You remind me of a cat we used to own,” Mary said sweetly. “Theia, we called her. When she had her kittens, she adored them and cared for them as no other could. When anyone ever tried to pick up a kitten, she would scratch them. More often than not, there was blood.”
“Good, then I shall be like Theia,” Emily assured her cousin as she moved to the door. “If Mr Sheffield wishes to take my son from me, it will not be an easy task.”
“I still do not understand why he would attempt to do such a thing,” Mary said, her tone sad.
As they stepped into the hallway, Emily pleaded with her cousin to be quiet with a finger to her lips, for they were approaching Henry, and she didn’t wish the boy to hear of their conversation. Henry knew nothing of it, and Emily intended to keep it that way.
The boy had had a hard time. He’d lost his father the better part of two years ago, and the bond between father and son had been a strong one. It was not something Henry was going to grieve for easily. At first, there had been temper tantrums, with Henry storming around their house on the outskirts of Sheffield, demanding to know where his father was. Emily had struggled to explain it to him, and more than once had the two of them capitulated together in corners of rooms, where Henry would cry in her arms, and she would comfort him.
They were all each other had now, and they loved one another greatly.
There is not a chance in this world I am going to let Christopher take him away from me.
“Now, Henry, are you ready?” Emily asked, pulling her spencer jacket off the coat stand.
“I’m ready.” Henry stood tall with his coat on.
“Then let us go.”
A few minutes later, the family left for church. Alongside Mary walked her only daughter, Abigail, and Joseph led the way down the path. Emily and Henry walked at the back, with Emily’s hand firmly in her son’s.
“I do not understand why we have to go to church,” Henry murmured, kicking at the stones beneath his feet.
“It is to praise our God and to speak to Him,” Emily said softly, urging him not to kick the stones up into the air, for they scattered dust on his trousers.
“I still remember what happened at our church,” Henry said miserably, kicking again just to defy her. He would do this on occasion. His confusion and sadness at the absence of his father would manifest itself as rebellion. “It was the last we saw him, wasn’t it?”
Emily gulped, knowing exactly what her son was referring to.
“I know, love, I know,” she murmured, holding tighter to his hand. “He is in a good place though, now. He is cared for by God. Loved by him.”
“Do you think he can hear our prayers the way God can?” Henry asked as they came upon the church. The grey stone building was half-hidden behind pine trees on one side, and a tall path led up a hill, back toward the local village.
“I like to think so,” Emily declared with a smile. Her words seemed to bring comfort, and Henry smiled too.
“Keep calm, Abigail,” Emily reminded, tapping her cousin’s daughter on her shoulder as they stood from the pews.
“I do not look calm, do I?” Abigail said self-consciously, lifting her gloved hands to cover her cheeks that were already blushing a deep shade of red, almost as red as her auburn locks.
“Perhaps not so much,” Emily confessed in a whisper. “Breathe deeply. All will be well.”
Abigail clearly followed her instruction. Between them, they held onto Henry’s hands and drew him from the pews, following Mary and Joseph as they left the church. There was an eagerness in Abigail’s step, one that made Emily glance warningly her way. Abigail seemed to understand the silent message and slowed her walk to a more reasonable pace.
“I cannot help it,” Abigail whispered over Henry’s head, who was too busy humming the last of their hymns to take notice of their conversation. “When I see him, I am all a flutter.”
“Ah, I remember such feelings. The first pangs of love.” Emily laughed dreamily under her breath.
It has been some time since I felt such a sensation.
She had loved her husband dearly, and those early months together had been full of excitement. That excitement she often missed these days, though she was careful not to speak of it to anyone.
“One is always fearful of acting a fool,” Emily said as they walked toward the church door, where the vicar and the curate were wishing the congregation goodbye.
“Precisely!” Abigail cried with eagerness. “My heart is always beating faster than it should, nervous I have done something quite absurd.”
“Calm yourself, dear,” Emily reminded her again, “for you now have to greet the gentleman.”
It was the last word they could share on the matter. As Mary and Joseph greeted the vicar, Father Jonathan, the curate turned his attention to addressing Emily and Abigail. Mr Matthew Colebrook was a young man, perhaps a few years older than Abigail, and was a pleasant figure. Emily could certainly see why he had entranced Abigail so much since he had arrived in the parish. His fair hair was coiffed well, his blue eyes large in his face, and his warm smile always inviting. Of an affable nature, he never had a cross word to say to anyone.
“Miss Thatcher,” he greeted Abigail first. “How well you look today. I trust you enjoyed the service?”
When Abigail hesitated to answer, so caught up in her own thoughts, Emily cleared her throat.
“Oh, yes,” Abigail said hurriedly, shaken out of her stupor. “Very much so, I thank you for it. Little Henry enjoyed it too, did you not?”
“I liked all the singing,” Henry declared eagerly.
“You did? Then we shall have to get you in the choir singing more, shall we not?” Mr Colebrook offered. “What do you say, Lady Sheffield?”
“Perhaps,” Emily murmured, reserving judgement for now. Despite Henry’s eagerness and the way he repeatedly jumped up and down on his toes with excitement at this prospect, she knew his attention span did not last long on any particular subject for the moment. “We shall see. Abigail, weren’t you saying you had some questions for Mr Colebrook regarding the biblical text?” Emily encouraged a conversation, watching as Abigail began to blush more, her nose turning a deeper shade of crimson.
“I would be happy to help in any way I can, Miss Thatcher.” The enthusiasm with which the curate took up the suggestion pleased Emily greatly.
Maybe love has passed for me, but it is pleasant to see the bud begin to bloom elsewhere.
With this thought in mind, Emily curtsied and pulled Henry away from Abigail and out of the church.
“Why are we leaving her?” Henry asked, his nose wrinkling with confusion.
“Our cousin needs to speak to the curate. Besides, do you wish to hear a long sermon on the Bible, Henry?” Her question prompted him to wrinkle his nose more. Emily giggled before drawing them toward where Mary stood.
“Emily,” Mary beckoned her closer. “Do let me introduce you to some of the ladies at our parish. They have been most desirous of meeting you this last week.”
“Of course.” Emily approached, putting a smile on her cheeks to be polite. She had hardly missed that during the church service, such ladies had been staring her way, most desirous to know more of her.
I am hardly surprised. I am the latest thing to gossip about in Montbury!
“May I introduce my cousin?” Mary said, gesturing to Emily. “The Dowager Viscountess of Sheffield, and her young son, the new Viscount of Sheffield.”
“Oh my,” one of the ladies gushed and hurried to curtsy so far that the edges of her pelisse ended up in the dirt beneath their feet. “A viscount at such a young age. A pleasure to meet you, my lord and my lady.”
Henry tugged more on Emily’s hand and hid a little behind her leg, prompting the circle of three ladies to laugh with affection.
“He is bashful,” Emily explained his behaviour. “It will certainly take some time to grow accustomed to his new title.”
“Naturally,” the lady said, not perturbed in the slightest by his attempt to hide.
“Emily, this is Lady Sodbury.” Mary gestured to the lady speaking. She was tall, so tall that her head dominated over others, and her face was rather angled, like that of a duck’s bill, but with her chin held high and a pleasant smile, it suited her well. Mary shifted her attention, motioning toward an elderly lady at Lady Sodbury’s side. “This is Mrs Madison and her sister, Mrs Lewellyn.” The two sisters curtsied, almost spitting images of one another in their plump forms and with dark eyes so wide they were startling.
“Welcome to Montbury, Lady Sheffield,” Mrs Madison said with keenness.
“Thank you. I look forward to becoming more acquainted.”
“As do we,” Lady Sodbury said. “We have heard much of you from your cousin. We have longed to meet you for some time.”
Emily glanced nervously at Mary, wondering how much had been said of her. She knew very well that whispers had been bountiful since her husband had passed. The Viscount of Sheffield’s early passing had been much talked of, especially as it left his eight-year-old son as the new viscount.
Every time Emily looked at her son, she felt a nervousness take hold of her. As the new viscount, with his vast lands and money held in trust, all seemed very precarious indeed. He was far too young to have such responsibilities on his shoulders, responsibilities he could not understand.
It is why Mr Christopher Sheffield wants his guardianship so badly, is it not? He wants the land and the money for himself, I am certain of it….
“Look who walks by us, ladies,” Lady Sodbury said, gesturing to another lady who had left the church. “The time of year approaches for her usual late summer soiree.”
“It will be soon indeed,” Mary agreed.
Emily let her eyes drift toward the lady that was being spoken of. She stood between the trees in the churchyard that were just beginning to turn, showing the signs that autumn was not far away. Elder in years, the lady was a noticeable figure for the way she wore her clothes, with a grand dress that was rather too fine even to wear to church on Sunday. She walked with a cane that she held out ahead of her, using it as more of a fashion piece than an aid to walking at all.
“Who is that?” Emily whispered to Mary.
“The Dowager Duchess of Montbury,” Mary explained. “She likes her own company and is perhaps not always fond of mixing with the villagers.” Even as the words were said, the Dowager Duchess made a point of not talking to anyone. She walked away, heading for where a small phaeton carriage awaited her at the bottom of the church path. “She always schedules her summer soiree around the same time as the village fair to mark the end of summer. Maybe the night before or even the same day. It is so she has the excuse not to attend herself.”
“Oh, well, that is a little….” Reluctant to disparage a lady she had never met, Emily chose not to finish the sentence but continued to watch the lady.
She could have many reasons for wanting to keep to her own company, rather than anyone else’s.
“Well, it is a shame,” Emily said, choosing another statement altogether.
As the Dowager Duchess stepped up into the carriage, her eyes shot back to the church, and they landed on Emily. For a second, they just stared at one another, a connection that was not even marred by a blink.
Emily could have laughed to herself, realising why the Dowager Duchess had stared at her from such a distance and beneath the covering of her vast bonnet. She was sneaking a glance at Emily. The lady might have liked to have kept to her own company, but it seemed she was no stranger to gossip.
She is curious as to who I am.
“We must be nearly there.” Thomas knew he was in a foul mood. It had to be the way if he had started speaking to the air again, as though it would speak back to him.
In London, there was always someone to speak to. He had many friends there, but it was the fault of the countryside that the company was not so easy to find. He sighed and looked across at the empty space on the other side of the carriage, finding his mood soured further when he acknowledged to himself that he was lonely.
Four days of travelling was the principal reason for his foul temper. Each time he looked out of the window, praying to see the emergence of the house in the distance, he simply saw the roads. He was relieved to see when the tracks gave way to the rolling hills of Derbyshire, dotted with grey stones and the pine trees that swathed the sides of the hills. He sat forward, peering through the window with the hope they would be there soon, when there was a shout from up ahead. The road was bordered with dry-stone walls and the occasional clumps of trees.
“Hold on!” the driver bellowed from the front of the carriage.
Thomas felt the hit a second later. The carriage collided with something hard. He grasped onto the wall beside him as the carriage rocketed to the side. For one awful minute, Thomas thought the carriage was going to roll, for it tipped so dangerously onto two wheels. He purposefully put himself in the middle of the carriage, praying his weight would push it down again. It was ungainly and full of harried movements, but he fell to his knees in the middle of the carriage. The thud was followed by the carriage falling flat.
“Ho! Look out!” the footman called from beside the driver.
The carriage skidded to a halt, accompanied by the noises of the horses squealing so loudly that they sounded like animals possessed by demons.
Dust kicked up around the carriage, clouding the windows with dirty air. Thomas coughed on the dirt that came through the open windows before moving to his feet and pushing open the carriage door.
“What happened?” he called, trying to keep the sharpness out of his voice. It wasn’t his driver’s or his footman’s fault that he was too quick to ire these days.
It’s the prospect of going back to Montbury, that is all. I never used to be this gloomy.
“We hit a fallen trunk in the road, Your Grace,” the driver called as he jumped down from the seat. “I couldn’t see it, for it was half covered by the undergrowth and the trees here on the turning. By the time I saw it, we were travelling too fast to stop.” He was evidently disorientated and a little dazed from the collision, for he swayed on his feet.
“Woah, careful, Myers.” Thomas leapt forward and caught the man under the arms before he could fall back to the earth beneath him. “Here, let us sit for a moment.” He lowered the man as gently as he could to the earth. “Are you injured at all?”
“No, Your Grace. Just in shock, I think.”
“Good. Well, rest here a moment.” Thomas tapped the driver on the shoulder, quick to ascertain the man was in good health. He didn’t want to see anyone injured. Montbury had enough bad memories without adding more to the mix. “Where’s Alfie?”
“I’m here, Your Grace!” a voice called from under the carriage. In the middle of the open road, flanked by the dry-stone walls that marked the boundaries to nearby fields, the carriage had come to a stop angled on one side, with what remained of the tree trunk they had struck half dragged out from the undergrowth.
Thomas stumbled to his feet in a panic that the footman might have fallen under the carriage, but the young man appeared a few seconds later, bounding forward. Thomas rubbed his face and pinched his brow, trying to calm the erraticism of his heartbeat.
“I have just checked, and the rear axle is broken. There is no way this carriage can go on.”
“Wonderful.” The sarcasm in Thomas’ voice was thick. He turned and apologised for his tone to the driver, who was still on the ground, recovering from his shock. Taking control of the situation, Thomas considered where they were.
He knew this road. He’d travelled on it many times when he was younger. They could not have been more than five miles from Montbury. The road wound its way from here through Bakewell town, down the side of the hills, before it finished in the valley where the estate was nestled along a river. The journey could be made easily enough on a horse, but the driver was in no state to do such a ride. Thomas wouldn’t have forgiven himself for asking such a thing of the driver after the shock he’d had either.
“Here, Myers. Let us get you sat somewhere more comfortable.” Thomas reached for the driver’s arm and pulled him to his feet before steering him to a nearby dry-stone wall that marked the boundaries to the fields. The young footman hurried to help, taking Myers’ other arm. When they reached the wall, Thomas shrugged off his greatcoat and lowered it to the wall to soften the stone before they placed Myers on top.
The air nipped at his cheeks and ears, betraying how cold it was.
Wonderful, just wonderful! Whenever I come to Montbury, things are not easy.
He rather wondered if there was a curse upon the place, for whenever he came near, something went wrong. It would not have surprised him to see the gargoyles jumping off the local church and running down the road to come and greet him at this rate.
“I have an idea,” Thomas said, determined to get his staff out of this situation. “I shall take one of the horses and ride to Montbury. They can send out another carriage, and we can send men for the carriage too.”
“Your Grace, we should do that.” Myers attempted to stand, but he was still clearly dazed from the impact, for he wobbled on his feet. Both Thomas and Alfie grabbed a different arm and lowered Myers back down to the wall.
“I can ride well enough,” Thomas assured him with a smile. “Your wish to do things for me is a kindness, but let me do something for you now. Alfie, are you happy to stay here and watch Myers?”
“Of course, Your Grace, but are you certain?”
“Very certain. I know this land well.” Thomas stepped away from the men and hastened to the horses, unbuckling the tallest steed as quickly as he could. Unable to saddle the animal, he would have to ride bareback. Fortunately, the black steed did not complain and allowed Thomas onto his back.
Well, at least that is one thing that has gone well today.
“I shall send men soon.” He promised his staff with a nod, and they thanked him and waved him off. Thomas turned, not glancing back as he rode down the road.
He descended from the tall road between the trees and across an open hill, taking a shortcut through farming fields. They were his tenants’ fields, and had they seen him, he hoped they would recognise him enough after being away for so long not to stop him. He didn’t want any more hold-ups.
After four days travelling, he was tired and had had enough. He was not only tired of sitting still in a carriage but bored of the food he found in the coaching inns. Forced to eat umble and pigeon pie that were both incredibly dry, and cheese that was hardened with blue on the edges, it had hardly been a pleasant journey.
I’ll be there soon. When I’m home, I can rest.
He had a feeling when he reached the house, though, not all would be peaceful. His mother would be there, and she’d ask him what she always asked him when he returned to Montbury. “Why have you been away for so long, Thomas?”
Crossing from the road, he took a track between the fields that were growing ready for harvest. The rain had left the grains sodden, but the stalks of wheat stood tall. The earth beneath the horse’s hooves was growing soft due to being full of rainwater, and the air that buffeted his cheeks made his eyes sting. The further he went, the faster he travelled, urging the horse to gallop.
Now he was away from the scene of the incident, his frustrations were returning. Of all the things to happen on a day like today, it had to be something of this kind. In the back of Thomas’ mind, he couldn’t help fearing it was a warning. Maybe something out there was warning him it was not wise to go back to Montbury Hall.
“They have been gone awhile.” Emily paced nervously by the window, looking out to the path that passed by the house beyond.
Abigail had accompanied Henry on a walk, along with their dog, a small pug called Dash. Usually, at this time, Dash could be seen darting back up the path, hastening to the door, with Henry running so fast in his attempt to keep up that he would slip on the wet earth and in the puddles, but they were not there.
“I am sure they will return soon,” Mary said from her place nearby in a chair, attending to her embroidery, but Emily was not so convinced.
She went as far as striding out to the hallway and opening the front door wide, as if Henry and Dash would suddenly appear there, with Abigail trailing behind them.
“Do you think they have gotten lost?” Emily called to her cousin as she stood in the doorway.
“Worry not, Emily. Henry is quite well. I am sure of it. Abigail always takes good care of him.”
“She does. I know that.” Still, Emily wrung her hands together. She adored Henry and had always taken good care of him, but since her husband’s passing, her protectiveness had grown. Deep down, she supposed it was a fear of losing another she loved, but there was another fear too.
If Mr Christopher Sheffield intended to take Henry from her by arguing she was an unfit mother, then Emily didn’t want to give him a chance to make such a case.
I would protect Henry with my dying breath.
Her eyes fell on the coat stand beside her, spying that Henry’s warmer frock coat still hung there.
“They forgot his coat!” She snatched the coat off the peg.
“Emily, he must not need it, or they would have returned by now,” Mary said, appearing in the doorway and still attending to her embroidery. “It is barely autumn.”
“The seasons are beginning to turn, and it’s already cooler. Have you not seen the horse chestnuts are growing russet-coloured? I shall walk to meet them,” Emily said, hurrying to put on her own pelisse as her eyes darted across the puddles beyond the door. It was certainly too cold for Henry to be without his coat. Tucking Henry’s coat under her arm, she strode out of the house, so eager in her pace that she quite forgot to take her bonnet.
Emily traipsed through the woodlands of Montbury, searching for all the usual routes that she knew Henry liked to take. More often than not, she would accompany Henry and Dash on their walks, only to find she was dragged off the paths and into the undergrowth, for Dash had wanted to explore.
A short while later, after venturing through trees and pulling at twigs that had become caught in her hair, she appeared on the widest path, heading up the lane toward the church.
“I should have found him by now,” Emily murmured to herself, her panic making her stride faster. She wrung the coat between her hands and walked so quickly that her shoes occasionally slipped in puddles. Circling the church, she came upon a row of cottages, including the vicarage. At the far end was the curate’s cottage, the sight that greeted her there made her pace slow a little. “Oh, thank god.”
Standing at the end of the garden path by the garden wall was Mr Colebrook, and on the other side was Abigail. The two were talking eagerly together, with Abigail blushing so much that Emily thought it a wonder Mr Colebrook hadn’t yet noticed he had an admirer.
If Abigail is here, then Henry must be here, too.
Emily approached, her movements alerting Abigail to her presence.
“Ah, Emily,” Abigail said, turning to her with a smile. “Did you decide to join us on our walk?”
“Yes, it seems you found a pleasant way to occupy your time whilst walking,” Emily teased her good-naturedly, watching as her cousin tried to hide her smile.
“Good afternoon, Lady Sheffield,” Mr Colebrook declared, bowing deeply.
“And to you.” Emily paused, glancing to and fro. She had half expected to see Henry and Dash playing together in Mr Colebrook’s front garden, but there was no one there. “Abigail….” Emily’s tone took on a deeper note. She didn’t even have to say the words for Abigail to realise what was wrong. The young woman began to turn back and forth, her shoulders flinching as her eyes danced about the space.
“He was right here. Emily, he was. Just a moment ago.”
“The viscount?” Mr Colebrook said, then his customary smile vanished. “Oh…he was here. He was standing at your side.”
Emily baulked, glancing between the two of them. They had both plainly been caught up so much in each other’s presence that they had missed the fact Henry was no longer there at all.
“He’s gone?” Emily murmured in horror.
“No, no, he can’t be. He was right here,” Abigail insisted, turning in a circle.
“Well, he isn’t now. Oh, my lord.” At Emily’s curse, she turned to Mr Colebrook and apologised, but he shook his head.
“God would probably agree when a child is lost.”
Lost? He cannot be lost!
“No, he can’t be,” Emily muttered, stumbling away from the garden gate. “Henry! Henry!” She turned and began to shout his name up and down the path, praying her son would appear from the nearby trees, happy and as carefree as he always was, but no small voice answered her, not even Dash’s feeble yap accompanied the nearby birdsong.
“We must search for him,” Abigail pleaded. Mr Colebrook had already strode through the garden gate, clearly intending to help.
“Of course, I will search the village.”
“I will check the churchyard.
“Henry!” Emily made no such plan. She shouted his name and strode directly toward the trees. “Henry! Come back here! Follow my voice, please.” He still did not reply. She strode between the trees, her shoes landing in such vast puddles and sticky mud that they frequently tried to pull her over, but she never let up. In her fervour, she clawed at the tree trunks and moved forward.
Where is my son?
“From Dowager to Duchess” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Following her husband’s passing, all Lady Emily Sheffield has left is her beloved son, Henry. However, with her late husband’s cousin vying for control of Henry and the estate funds, she now faces losing the most important person in her life too… Fate intervenes when she crosses paths with the handsome but distant Duke of Monbtury, who will soon make her feel that life is worthwhile again.
Will Emily be ready to give her heart away when at the same time she has to fight for guardianship of her only son? Will the strong-willed lady find the path to happiness again?
Thomas Musgrave, Duke of Montbury, had no wish to return to Derbyshire, as memories from the past were haunting him. A sudden encounter with Emily will change everything though, as the more time he spends with her and her son, the more he realises that a family is what he has been yearning for all these years. Will he be able to win her trust with so many threats around them?
A lady in an unbearable battle and a nobleman with a heart filled with wounds…
Soon enough, Emily and Thomas find themselves inextricably drawn to one another. With the threat of Emily losing her son and the eventful return of Thomas’ previous love, they must find the courage to fight both for each other and against external danger. With so much at stake, will Emily and Thomas trust each other and find a way to defend their hearts? In the end, will love thrive, or will secrets and lies ruin everything they have dreamed of?
“From Dowager to Duchess” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.