The morning was bright, with the sun shining down over the fields, homes, and a few inns and shops nearby. It looked so peaceful, out on the edge of the city. Of course, behind the tenements, the whole of London waited.
Nancy Fletcher leaned her slim body against the doorframe, looking out with gray eyes at the scene before her.
It was beautiful. Every morning was beautiful. And, soon enough, everything was going to be new again.
Her heart held so much hope for what things would be like once her husband returned from the war. Surely, it would not be long now. Thomas would return soon, and they could finally begin their life together.
Nancy missed him every day. She had been so fortunate to marry for love, but without Thomas, the days were only a shadow of what they ought to be. They had only had a week together before he was called to France.
As if by magic, as if her thoughts had called him up, Nancy saw the figure of a man. A redcoat soldier.
He was coming! Thomas had finally returned!
Her heart pounded and a smile threatened to overtake her face entirely.
“Thomas!” she shouted, running from the door and out into the street. It was not the most ladylike thing to do, but there was nothing that could stop her.
Even as she drew near to him, Nancy began to realize that there was something wrong. Something about Thomas’s gait was different. His frame was shorter and wider. His shoulders slumped.
And that was when the awful truth struck her.
It is not Thomas.
Nancy slowed and then stopped altogether, standing along the path and staring at the man.
He was watching her, continuing to draw near.
“F-forgive me,” Nancy said. “I thought you were my husband.”
“I am sorry, Miss. Are you, by any chance, Mrs. Fletcher?” the man asked.
“Yes, I am,” she said, confused as to why he would know her name. Had Thomas asked him to come and pay her a visit? Why had this man been allowed to come home first?
He looked up at her with sad eyes, and Nancy ignored the sinking feeling in her chest.
“I’m sorry to tell you, Mrs. Fletcher, but your husband was lost in battle,” the soldier said.
Frozen in place, Nancy said nothing. A strange, numb tingling ran through her limbs, and she didn’t think that she had heard him correctly.
“N-no. That cannot be true,” she said, her voice quaking and her knees unsteady.
“I’m afraid it is, Madam,” he replied, handing her the uniform that had once belonged to the man she had placed all of her hopes in.
The man sighed, somewhat impatiently. Nancy was still in shock. She felt nothing. She understood the words that he had said, but they made no sense to her. Whose uniform was she holding? It could not be the one belonging to Thomas. He was still in France, wearing it.
“Because you are childless, you will only receive the one-time compensation. It is for your husband’s service,” he said, indifferently, handing her an envelope.
“Th-thank you,” she said, through a ragged breath. The money was certainly no comfort. It was nothing to make up for what she had lost. Even if none of this felt real, she knew that much.
The money was a hollow gesture. The army probably thought it was a kindness, but Nancy didn’t see it that way. She and Thomas had hardly been getting by as it was, barely managing to cover Nancy’s basic needs while her husband was away.
“It’s not much, but you are able to take up an occupation, are you not?” the man asked.
“Y-yes. I have one. I am a seamstress,” she said.
“Good. Then you will be all right,” he said.
Her work as a seamstress was sparse and there was never any way of planning for the future when she was doing such an inconsistent job. But that was nothing compared to the pain of being without Thomas.
“Well, have a nice day, Madam. I am sorry for your loss,” the soldier said, reluctantly, walking past her and on toward his next stop.
Nancy didn’t move. She couldn’t. She had only just found Thomas, married him, and now he was gone. She had lost him before their love had been given a chance to grow.
In her hopelessness, she fell to her knees.
She couldn’t say how long she kneeled there, collapsed in the middle of the quiet road. She only realized that her face was streaming with tears once she felt the sky crying in consolation, tears landing upon her head, upon her back, upon her hands.
The weeping, the body-racking sobbing, would surely come once the numbness wore off, and Nancy wanted to keep it at bay for as long as she could. She wanted to remain free of the horrors of it.
She wanted to pretend that everything was fine until she could no longer deny the reality.
With that, she decided to walk in the rain. Into the streets of London, as the sky opened fully, unleashing her mourning sobs with chokes of thunder and rages of lightning. Nancy allowed it to chill her bones.
The maze of streets took her back toward the home that she and Thomas had lived in together, for such a brief time. His family home. She was nearly there.
And that was when she saw the figure of a small child. A girl. Shivering from the cold, fragile, nearly starved.
Nancy’s heart was moved, and she approached the pale creature with her mass of red curls. The child looked up at her.
“Where are your mother and father, dearie?” she asked.
“I-I have none,” the girl replied in a high-pitched, shaking voice as her body trembled uncontrollably.
And there it was. Another spark of light. Another way to keep the weeping at bay.
Nancy held out her hand.
“Celia!” Nancy called, needing her little one to hurry.
“Yes, Mummy? What is it?” Celia asked, rushing into the room.
“I have to leave, dearie. We need to get you to Miss Winston’s,” Nancy said, grateful to her wealthier neighbor who always diligently watched Celia when Nancy went off to do her work.
“Of course, Mummy. I am ready,” she said.
“Excellent. On we go,” Nancy said.
She led Celia to Miss Winston’s and thought about the turn that her life had taken over the previous year.
Raising a child had been no easy task, but as a woman who was all on her own, it had been even more of a challenge.
Still, Celia had brought Nancy a great deal of joy. Nancy only wished that the Royal Army had given her a stronger allowance. Just because she had not had any children with Thomas didn’t mean that she shouldn’t be given enough compensation to take care of Celia.
She needed to find better ways of feeding her little girl.
Of course, even when the food was scarce, Celia was appreciative. She was such a sweet, humble child. And obedient. Sometimes Nancy could hardly believe how quick Celia was to listen and do what she had been instructed to.
The two had bonded quite significantly in their time together.
They arrived at the home of Miss Winston and knocked at the door.
“Come in!” the woman called from the other side.
Nancy entered, followed closely by Celia.
“Ah, good morning, darling. Are you ready for a lovely day?” Miss Winston asked Celia, who nodded in reply.
“Thank you, Miss Winston, for watching her. Is there anything I can bring you on my way home?” Nancy offered.
“Oh, nothing, thank you. I just have those shirts there that you can work on. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have nimble fingers again! But, I did want to let you know that I heard about something that might interest you,” Miss Winston said.
“What is it?” Nancy asked.
“I heard about a duchess—she is a friend of my aunt’s, you know, the one who married a baron—who is looking for a new lady’s maid. Apparently, her former maid died from,” at this, Miss Winston lowered her voice so that Celia would not hear. “Heart failure. After ten years of service. It is just dreadful.”
Nancy blinked, thinking it sad, but not understanding why Miss Winston was telling her this.
“I am not certain why you think this information would interest me,” she said.
“Why, I think you ought to reach out to the Duchess about the position, of course! Can you imagine what a wonderful opportunity that would be for you? And, of course, for your dear Celia. You would make a fortune. Certainly more than you make at the moment,” she said.
“Yes, I suppose I would. It sounds like it would be a very good opportunity,” Nancy said, amazed that Miss Winston thought that she would be good enough for the role.
“You look perplexed,” Miss Winston said.
“No, it is only that I never thought of applying for a position like that,” Nancy said. “Do you really believe that she would hire someone like me?”
“I can’t see why she wouldn’t,” Miss Winston said.
“And, if she did like me enough, would you be able to watch Celia for the whole day? As it is, you care for her when I am going to and fro, trying to find clothing to mend, but as a lady’s maid, I imagine I would be gone a full day,” Nancy said.
“Well, the Duchess does not live here. She is outside of London on a grand estate,” Miss Winston told her.
Nancy very nearly froze, thinking about that.
“You mean the position would require that we move?” she asked.
“It would, yes. If you wish, I would be more than happy to write to the duchess on your behalf,” Miss Winston said.
Nancy thought about it as she went to get clothing from two different ladies for whom she mended. By the time she returned to pick up Celia, she had made up her mind.
“I would like it if you would contact the Duchess. It would be such a benefit to us if she is willing to take me into her service,” Nancy said.
“I thought you would make the right choice. I shall let you know immediately once I have heard from her,” Miss Winston said.
“Thank you, Miss Winston. Thank you for looking out for us,” Nancy said.
Nancy was eager to hear what the duchess said. This was a position that could change everything. One that could save her life, as well as Celia’s.
Two days later, Miss Winston came to her door.
“My dear, Nancy, she has agreed,” Miss Winston said.
“The Duchess? You mean that she has agreed to take me on as her lady’s maid?” Nancy asked, hardly believing it.
“Indeed, she has! And she is very much looking forward to having you work for her. Honestly, I believe that she is rather lonely,” Miss Winston said.
Nancy was thrilled by the prospect of having such a good position. But, more than anything, she was excited by what it meant for Celia.
When they arrived at the estate a few days later, Celia clutched Nancy’s hand.
“Will she be a nice woman?” Celia asked.
“I am certain that she will. Don’t lose heart, Celia. This will be good for us. You’ll see,” Nancy said. She leaned over and kissed Celia’s rosy cheek, receiving a wide smile in return.
Nancy looked up at the manor in awe, amazed by the vastness of the estate and land. It was beautiful, just two hours outside of London, and the grandness astounded Nancy.
Nancy was anxious, hoping the Duchess would prove to be a good woman. She was filled with excitement, but also trepidation.
If things did not go well, Nancy was worried that she would only subject Celia to even more hunger. The girl’s frail body could hardly survive with any less than she was already getting. And if the harsh conditions of their home were not enough, what more could Nancy put her through?
After taking a deep breath, Nancy knocked at the front door of the home. The butler answered and raised an eyebrow, looking at Nancy and Celia.
It was quite clear that there was judgment passing behind those eyes, thoughts that said these two strange creatures were not quite beings of status, by any means.
“Oh, dear,” he finally said. “I am sorry, Miss, but we aren’t given to accepting beggars in these parts.”
Nancy looked at her dress, the nicest that she owned. There was not a hole to be seen. She had even splurged by adding a lace trim to hide the worn edges of the hem. And Celia’s dress was also in the best condition it could possibly be.
“I beg your pardon?” Nancy asked.
“I mean no offense, of course. It is only that this is the home of a very grand lady, not some minister who gives new rags to those who are wearing . . . tatters,” he replied, giving her that look again.
Nancy could feel the rush of blood in her pale cheeks, furious and humiliated all at once. She put a hand to the blonde bun at the base of her neck, wishing she had the means of adorning it with a lovely clip or something to enhance her appearance.
“I am told that the Duchess of Ridlington has accepted me for the position of a lady’s maid,” she managed to say through a tense jaw and rigid lips.
The butler took in a sharp breath.
“Oh! Oh, you are her new companion? And you come with a pet of your own, I see. Well, then. In that case, the Duchess is in the garden, and I shall show you to her,” he said.
Nancy pushed aside her new misgivings, thinking this the better option. This man had been rude, but she believed in the importance of giving him a chance to show that he was better than her first impression.
When they reached the garden, they saw the Dowager Duchess of Ridlington, Florence Tilbury. She looks marvelous in her deep, blue dress, made of taffeta or some such grand fabric. She sat at an iron table, ornate with little swirling details, drinking tea.
Nancy could hardly look away from her.
“Ah, and this must be Mrs. Fletcher and her young darling—Miss Celia, I am told?” the Dowager Duchess asked, standing to greet them.
“Indeed, Your Grace,” Nancy said, curtseying and side-eyeing Celia to tell her to echo the movement.
“Wonderful. Welcome to you both,” she said, smiling at Celia.
Nancy glanced at Celia, who was looking in wonder at the beautiful gardens around them. She was being quiet, but her green eyes marveled at everything she saw.
“Now, you must take a seat,” the Duchess said, gesturing to the other seat at the table. She nodded to a maid, who rushed over with two more cups of tea for Nancy and Celia.
“Th-thank you, your grace,” Nancy said, surprised by the gesture. She had not expected a dowager duchess to be so humble as to serve tea and drink it with her. And, after the encounter with the butler, she was especially surprised.
“Now, I shall tell you a little bit about myself, and you may tell me about yourself in return, what do you think?” the Dowager Duchess asked.
“Yes, certainly,” Nancy agreed.
“I, myself, am a widow. My son was with me for a time, but he has gone to the West Indies. Therefore, I am glad to have a new companion—two new companions, rather,” she said, grinning at Celia once more.
“Anyway, you already know—I suspect—that my husband was the Duke of Ridlington, a title that my son has since taken on. And you? Tell me about yourself, Mrs. Fletcher,” she said.
Nancy took a deep breath and nodded.
“I, also, am a widow. My father was a miller, who passed away a few years ago, and my mother died when I was a child. At eighteen years of age, I married a man that I loved, but he went to France just a week later, for the war. I was informed a year ago that he was lost in battle,” Nancy said.
“That is a very difficult life. You must be quite strong to have born such troubles,” Her Grace said.
“I like to think so,” Nancy replied, a soft smile on her face.
“And what of you, my dear?” the Duchess asked, turning to Celia, who was being as proper as she was able.
Celia held her tea cup with both hands in an effort not to spill anything. Nevertheless, Nancy could see that, while she had been distracted by the conversation, Celia had put enough sugar in her cup that it had not yet even melted.
“Me? My name is Miss Celia Fletcher,” she said in a very enunciated way, trying to be as diligent and polite as she could.
“Yes, and you have lovely eyes, Miss Fletcher,” Her Grace said, causing Celia to blush.
“Thank you, Miss,” Celia said.
“Celia, dear, we must address the Duchess as Your Grace,” Nancy said, kindly.
“Oh, please, don’t worry about it. I am an old lady, and I don’t mind in the slightest if my title is forgotten. Anyway, I have to say that I like both of you a great deal, from what little we have spoken. I cannot think of anyone I would rather have in my employ,” Her Grace said.
“Really? You want us to live here with you?” Nancy asked, amazed by the opportunity.
“Yes, indeed. I do need a lady’s maid, but I rather miss the company as well. I can think of no one better than the likes of you two,” she said.
Nancy looked at Celia, and they smiled at one another, both knowing precisely what the other was thinking.
“I believe,” Nancy began, “that we are in agreement. We would love to be your companions.”
Vincent took a deep breath and let it out slowly, mentally saying his farewell to the sea.
As his green eyes took in the sight of London’s docks, he recognized the same bustling energy that he had missed over the previous two years. The same culture of the laborers at work and the smell of cabbage and meat pies that wafted toward him from where some of the dock workers were sitting and warming their food over a little fire pit.
It was good to be home. More than anything, it would be lovely to see his mother again. Surely, she was ready to see him, as well.
Vincent hoped that she had received his latest letter, telling her when he expected to arrive. But it was Layton who greeted him as he walked the plank down from the ship.
“Ah, Layton, thank goodness you have come,” Vincent said, patting his rather long and lean friend on the back.
“I have been keeping my eyes open for you. Old Fisher came back yesterday and said that you were only a day behind him in departing. I thought it best that I come to the docks just in case,” Layton said.
“And how has it been since you returned home?” Vincent asked.
“As well as you might imagine. The West Indies are a good investment, and trade is a wonderful business, but there is nothing like coming home. It is good to be away from those ports, so unlike our own. And the—what would you call them? Hostiles?—the bargains that we so often are stuck dealing with. We are free of that discomfort when we come home,” Layton said.
“I could not have put it any better, my friend. It was difficult when you left a few months ago. I cannot tell you how lonely I was at times,” Vincent said.
“Yes, I am sure. And it was a long journey, was it not?” Layton asked.
“Oof, long enough!” Vincent replied, laughing.
“Well, then you must come to my home. Would you like to spend the evening?” Layton asked.
“As honored as I would be to dine with the Marquess of Oakshore, I fear that I ought to be getting home,” Vincent said, grinning at Layton.
“Ah, yes, of course,” Layton said.
“I would like to see my mother,” Vincent explained.
“I understand perfectly. And I am sure that she is eager to see you again as well,” Layton said.
Vincent was certain that his mother would be painfully hurt if he did not go visit her upon the first day of his arrival. It was only right that he make his way to the family estate, even if it was an extra two hours on top of the journey that he had already taken.
“Would you like my coach to take you to the estate?” Layton offered, as though reading his mind.
“Hmm?” Vincent asked.
“Your estate. It is far out of the way. I would appreciate it if you allow my driver to take you. I would be happy to escort you myself. I have plans out that way as it is,” Vincent told him.
“But it is so far from your own home. Are you not staying at the townhouse in London?” Vincent asked.
“I have a good deal to tell you. I am heading that way as it is, and I think it would be the perfect time for us to catch up,” Layton said.
Vincent smiled and shook his head.
“So, it appears that much has happened in a matter of months?” he asked.
“More than you can imagine,” Layton replied.
They gathered Vincent’s belongings and carted them to Layton’s coach. From there, they set out on their journey.
Although he was eager to learn what news Layton had, Vincent wanted a moment to simply take in the scenery of England. From the chaos of the city to the long, winding roads of the countryside, it felt good to be back on solid ground.
He had not expected to miss England so much. After all, going to the West Indies had been a grand adventure, something that he had not had such an opportunity to do before. A dream of travel and excitement that most men only longed for.
But now that he had returned, Vincent appreciated everything his eyes took in. Every last detail was more beautiful than the last.
“I can see that you missed it dearly,” Layton commented, snapping Vincent from his dreams.
“I can hardly express how much. And you? How has your life been since your return? What is all of this news and change that you have to report?” Vincent asked.
Layton leaned back further in his seat, a contented grin on his face.
“As it happens, it is rather convenient that you have arrived just now,” Layton said. “I am betrothed. I shall be getting married in a few weeks.”
“Really? That is wonderful!” Vincent exclaimed.
He was thrilled for Layton’s sake. Layton had always yearned to have a family, and he was such a good and loyal man that it was wonderful to hear he would finally have the thing that he so desired.
“That is truly amazing, Layton. I am happy for you. Congratulations. When do I get to meet her?” Vincent asked.
“Well, you ought to get settled in first. But we can see to the meeting in the next few days. I truly believe that you will like her. She is such a good woman, and she makes me very happy,” Layton said.
“In that case, I have to meet her as quickly as possible. Now, what else has been going on in London while I have been away?” Vincent asked.
Layton filled him in on a few things that had occurred since his own return to England. He shared about some of the parties, and a little bit of gossip. There had been some exciting developments in the great kingdom, and Vincent was happier than ever that he had returned.
Having been gone for such a long time, Vincent realized that he had missed out on the parts of home that made it so pleasurable. Nevertheless, he had finally returned, and he was not going to miss out on anything more.
He would enjoy the balls and the gatherings with all of society’s finest. He would be with his mother, indulging her and reminding her of how much he cared. He would be able to go to Layton’s wedding, seeing his dearest friend happily married off.
Finally, looking out the window to gauge how far they had come, Vincent’s heart seemed to skip a beat when his eyes took in the sight of his family’s estate.
“What is it? Are we almost there already?” Layton asked. “It hardly feels that we have had enough time. Please, do let me know as soon as you are able to spend some time together. I should very much like to introduce you to my betrothed.”
“I shall let you know the moment I am free,” Vincent said.
The coach led him right up to the front door of the estate and Vincent turned to Layton.
“Will you come inside? Just for a while,” he said.
“I have dinner plans, as I said. Madeline’s mother and father live just beyond here, and I am meeting with them. I shall write to you tomorrow, however. You have my word,” Layton promised.
Understanding that his friend certainly needed to be getting on his way, Vincent nodded. A sigh escaped him as he did.
“I am sorry, truly. I would love to spend more time with you,” Layton said.
“It is perfectly all right. You offered for me to stay at your home for the night and I am not able, I can hardly blame you for not being able to stay the evening at my home. We shall see one another soon enough. Now, enjoy your dinner, and I wish you all the best with your future bride and her parents,” Vincent said.
With that, Vincent got out of the coach and the coachman helped him unload a few things and brought them to the door.
Vincent knocked, straightening his jacket, and hoping that he was presentable.
He watched Layton’s coach depart and then turned back to the house as the door opened, the maid’s eyes turning bright upon seeing him.
“Your Grace! How lovely to see you. Tobias shall get your things,” she said, ushering the valet over.
“Thank you, Bessie,” he said, smiling as the staff welcomed him and helped carry in all of his belongings.
Vincent could hardly wait to see his mother. He walked into the house, knowing that his arrival would be a surprise to her, if she had not received his letter. It had been such a long time since they had seen one another.
With that, Vincent meandered down the main hallway, assuming that his mother would be in the parlor. But just as he was scheming how to surprise her, he heard a strange laugh.
Not strange. Just misplaced. It was the laughter of a child.
Vincent’s heart raced all over again, wondering what on earth had changed that there would be a child in the home.
In a strange and overwhelming panic, Vincent called out.
It took only a few days into her employment for Nancy to recognize that she had made the right decision. This was where she and Celia belonged. There was no doubt.
They were given a room to share but it was large enough that Nancy wondered if it had been meant for a guest rather than an employee.
The washroom was even extravagant, and Nancy could hardly believe that she and Celia had ended up in such a grand place with such a fine woman as the Dowager Duchess of Ridlington.
They had three full meals each day, tea at any time they wished for it, and the lovely, generous garden in which Celia loved to play. It was far grander than anything that Nancy had anticipated, and she hoped that their stay was not going to come to an end any time soon.
In the past six months, she had managed to see that this was exactly what they had needed.
However, she had also learned, rather quickly, that the Duchess was one of a kind. Not everyone was so humble as she was, certainly not everyone who was of such a position in society.
The butler had become a very decent man with time, but many of the visitors who arrived were pompous, assuming, preening members of society who considered themselves perfection.
But, in nearly six months together, Nancy had been able to handle every little bit of arrogance that directed her way from others.
Even when it came from the Countess, Lady Clearburn
One morning, Lady Clearburn entered the parlor, where Nancy had been sitting with the Duchess , mending some clothes, and barely gave a greeting before she began barking orders.
“Here, you can stitch this for me as well,” Lady Clearburn said, handing Nancy her purse without so much as a hello.
Nancy took it and set it beside the other items that she was working on for the Duchess. She was more than accustomed to the Countess by now, understanding that the wife of the Earl of Clearburn was never going to treat her with niceties.
“Pour me some tea. Quickly,” she said to one of the maids, who was already bustling off.
Lady Clearburn smoothed her black curls away from blue eyes that were buggy in her rat-like face. She was a small woman, and not altogether as beautiful as she hoped to be. It was apparent from her overuse of jewels to enhance her appearance that the Countess was aware of this.
“Good heavens, how long does it take to pour tea? And have you seen the dust on the mantle over there? Your Grace, I cannot fathom what it is that you pay your staff for. This room is an utter disaster,” Lady Clearburn said, ensuring that the maid was listening to every remark.
The Duchess simply watched her friend, patiently waiting until she had finished.
“Now, Cynthia, are you quite at ease?” Her Grace asked, sounding somewhat amused by her friend’s behavior. She held up a hand for the maid to stop as she started over to the mantle.
“Oh, who is ever at ease? What with the cold weather and incapable servants everywhere you go. It is a wonder that I have lasted so long in this country,” Lady Clearburn said.
Nancy leaned back, trying to finish the hem that she had offered to stitch that morning. But, unless the Duchess needed anything more, she was happy to sit and listen to the conversation.
They discussed the usual topics for women of their age. Rheumatism, the difficulty in finding a decent tuner for the pianoforte, whose daughter had secretly been harboring a scandalous lifestyle. It was certainly a different world than anything Nancy was familiar with.
She had heard a number of conversations between the Duchess and her friends, but it was Lady Clearburn who always seemed to be trying to prove herself. Her worth was so clearly tied up in what society thought of her that Nancy wondered how she had managed to con anyone into thinking that she was reasonable at all.
And, if Her Grace considered her a friend, did that mean that perhaps she had a hidden version of herself similar to the Countess? Nancy had not seen it, but she hoped that she never would.
“And how is your son, Florence?” the Countess asked, mentioning the young man that Nancy only heard of now and then.
“Oh! I have heard the most wonderful news. I received a letter just yesterday that he is homebound. Finally! After two years of not seeing my boy, he is returning to me, at last,” Her Grace announced, the joy in her face undeniable.
She clapped her hands together to show her delight and Nancy was overjoyed to see the Duchess so happy. It warmed her own heart, and she thought that it must be a good sign that Her Grace had a solid relationship with her son.
“That is grand news, my dear! We must have dinner together upon his arrival. I am certain that it will be good for him to be back home and enjoying England after living among the heathens,” Lady Clearburn said. “After all, this is a civilized society, unlike that place.”
“They have their own form of civility, I am sure. It is just different than ours,” the Duchess said.
“Oh, do not try and defend them. They could have had all of the bounties of Europe if not for their rebellion. Anyway, we must have a fine dinner,” the Countess said again.
“Yes, indeed. Once he is settled from his long journey, we shall do just that,” Her Grace said.
Nancy was excited for Her Grace to have her son home. The woman had so frequently mentioned him, but it was always in short little bursts. It had felt as though the Duchess longed for his return but speaking of his absence was too painful to indulge in much.
And yet, Nancy was also horrified by the way Lady Clearburn spoke of his journey. She was far too cruel, not seeing the value in the lives of those who lived abroad. Surely, Nancy knew nothing of those lands, but she could hardly imagine the people were all that bad.
She also couldn’t imagine that the Countess knew much about foreign lands either. It wasn’t as though she had ever traveled to the West Indies or seen what it was really like. The woman could hardly make an accurate judgment on the people before her own eyes, let alone those half a world away.
“I do dote on him, you know. Your son. He is the loveliest boy. Always has been,” Lady Clearburn remarked, looking truly eager.
Nancy could hardly imagine Lady Clearburn doting on anyone. She was a woman entirely too captivated by herself to take an interest in anyone else.
“Yes, indeed, I am well aware. I am quite a lucky woman to have such a son,” the Duchess commented.
“You are. He has always impressed me. His character and his good looks, just the sort of young man anyone would be proud of,” the Countess said, surprising Nancy with her compliments.
“He looks like his father,” Her Grace sighed.
“I think he rather looks more like you, Florence. Oh, I don’t know. I never have been very good at those types of judgments. Anyway, I am already making the grand plans for a dinner party, so you had best not keep me waiting once he arrives,” Lady Clearburn said.
Just then, Celia came bouncing into the room and, seeing the Duchess, rushed to her, embracing her in a hug. Her face was lit up until she buried into the torso of her newest favorite friend. It warmed Nancy to see how well the two got along and how comfortable Celia was with Her Grace.
The Duchess accepted the hug heartily, grinning and giving Celia a gentle squeeze. She was like the grandmother that Celia could not remember ever having had.
“How dare this peasant child come and go as she pleases? Does she think that this is an appropriate way to behave before a duchess?” Lady Clearburn demanded, her voice tinged with disgust.
“She is no peasant child, Cynthia. She is the sweetest little girl, and I am rather happy to indulge her. As for my own title, it means very little to me, and I would rather you did not let it fool you into thinking I am of any importance,” the Duchess said, giving Celia a kiss on the cheek. With that, she held Celia’s little hand in her own for a moment, a sign of comfort and affection that Celia took greedily.
Nancy saw the sneer on Lady Clearburn’s face. She was appalled by poor Celia, with her wild, red hair that Nancy found so lovely.
It made her wish, more than ever, that she could protect Celia from the cruelty of the upper classes. Now that they were happy, she could not bear to subject the child to the harsh reality that they did not belong in magnificent estates such as this one.
They had been fortunate so far, knowing that the Duchess of Ridlington was a kind, genial woman. But there was no promise that things would not change or that influences like the Countess of Clearburn would not cause the Duchess to second-guess her decision.
Was it possible that she would also prove to be moved by the whims of society? Or were they going to be fortunate and find that she was stronger than the opinions of others?
Nancy heard the sound of someone’s footsteps in the hall and assumed that it must be the valet or some other man who worked at the estate.
For Celia, however, the curiosity was too great, and Nancy saw it in her eyes even before the child broke free from the Duchess’ arms and ran off to see who it was.
“Celia! Don’t run, come here,” Nancy said, calling after the child. But it was too late, and Celia was already gone.
She turned to the Duchess and Lady Clearburn.
“Please excuse me for just a moment,” she said.
As she rushed out the door, she heard the Duchess call after her.
“Oh, just let her play for a while.”
But, already, Nancy’s eyes were shocked by the image before her.
Suddenly, the laugh that Vincent had heard was accompanied by a face. A little girl with bright green eyes was before him, giggling as she ran past, bumping his legs as she did.
“You can’t catch me!” she squealed.
Vincent turned in surprise, wondering where the child might have come from. Who was she? Why was she here?
The little girl ran back to him and wrapped her arms around his legs. She looked up at him with a beaming smile, missing a few of her teeth where their replacements had not yet grown in. It made for quite a charming little grin.
“Well, hello there,” he said, still in somewhat of a daze.
“Hello,” she said, laughing in reply.
“Mother!” Vincent called out again, unable to turn himself as the child had him in her grip.
Alas, the sound of footsteps behind him caused Vincent to turn. There was his mother, as well as a younger woman with a pretty face.
He looked to his mother, bending himself to do so.
“Is there something you need to tell me?” he asked, humorously.
His mother laughed, but it was the other woman who spoke first.
“Celia, come here,” she said in a gentle, yet firm voice. “We mustn’t disturb this man.”
She was dressed as a part of the staff, but Vincent had never known his mother to hire a maid who had a child. Not only that, but the woman and the child did not resemble one another at all. No, there was definitely something here that he was missing.
“Vincent, my boy! I am so happy to have you home, at last. Come, you must meet Mrs. Fletcher and her charming . . . her dear little friend,” his mother said, embracing him and then leading him to the woman and the child.
“Nice to meet you,” Vincent said, bowing.
“And you, Your Grace,” the young woman replied with a curtsey that the child replicated.
“Mrs. Fletcher is my new lady’s maid,” his mother said.
It was a surprise to hear. He was perfectly happy to meet this new young lady, but he needed a more detailed explanation than that.
“Mother, what happened to Olivia?” he asked, concerned.
His mother’s gaze turned sad.
“Come. Let us have some tea, and I shall explain all of it,” she said, leading him away.
Vincent nodded and looked back at the woman, who was now holding the child’s hand.
She was certainly lovely. The clothing that she wore was hardly a proper representation of who she appeared to be. She didn’t seem to be like any other lady’s maid that he had met before.
He had always found Olivia to be somewhat . . . interesting. As a woman who had been raised by her father and brothers, she had often lacked the delicacies of manners and was not always proper in front of guests.
However, this woman, Mrs. Fletcher, was different. She looked respectable and used impeccable manners.
Then again, he had only barely glanced at her. Who was he to pass these judgments?
He entered the parlor and was greeted by none other than Lady Clearburn. They spoke briefly, but he was relieved when she excused herself in order to give him time with his mother alone.
As they enjoyed their tea, his mother began explaining all that had occurred in his absence.
“Mrs. Fletcher has been with me for the past six months. She is quite a lovely young woman and very considerate. She has a good temper and excellent manners,” she explained.
“Well, that is very well, but what about—”
“As for Olivia,” his mother said, holding up a hand to stop him from speaking. For a moment, she was choked by emotion, and Vincent realized that whatever had taken place, it was not good.
“Olivia passed away. It was her heart, you see. It was devastating. I was in mourning for three months, trying to convince myself that I did not need anyone else, that I should simply continue in my sadness over the loss of someone who meant so much to me,” she said.
“However, I quickly found myself . . . what I mean to say is that you were not here, and Olivia was gone. I was quite lonely,” she confessed.
Vincent hung his head.
“I am sorry, Mother. I am sorry that you were on your own here for so long, left behind as I was away. I must admit that I have missed home a great deal,” Vincent told her.
His mother took his hand and gave it a squeeze.
“Well, you are here now,” she said.
“Yes, I am here,” he replied, hoping it was a comfort.
“Now, I am sure that you are wondering about the child as well,” his mother then said, seeming to read his thoughts.
“Of course, I am. You cannot expect me to return home to find that you have a child living with you and not be utterly astonished,” he said with a laugh.
His mother chuckled as well and nodded.
“Yes, well, I daresay that little Celia was a part of the reason that I was so eager to hire Mrs. Fletcher. I must confess that I adore having a child around, and it brings me a good deal of happiness to see that little girl every day. I feel youthful again whenever I am around her,” his mother said.
“Mother, you are quite young as it is,” he pointed out.
“Yes, but it is not the same,” she said.
“The girl, she is Mrs. Fletcher’s daughter?” Vincent asked, outright. He wanted answers regarding all of this strangeness.
“Not her daughter, no. That is, not biologically,” she said.
Vincent was more confused than ever at that statement.
“Mrs. Fletcher found Celia cold and deprived of food on the streets alone. It was a rainy day, from what Mrs. Fletcher has told me, and Celia was shivering, trying to scavenge. From what little she has pieced together, Celia does not know the identity of her true mother or father. She was being cared for by a woman who passed away from typhoid, but nothing more is known about her identity,” his mother said.
Vincent breathed deeply, analyzing what his mother had told him.
If Mrs. Fletcher had spoken truthfully, it was a very admirable deed that she had done, but it was also quite strange. Did she even have the means to take care of herself before coming to work for his mother? Why would she have taken in a child?
Or had she taken Celia in just for the sake of pity? Was she using the child in order to get what she wanted from others?
There were certainly those out there who would be so cold as to use a child in order to benefit themselves.
He eyed his mother with concern. She had often been too trusting in the past and this sounded like quite a dramatic story. He began to question its levity, thinking that his mother may have been too gullible in believing it.
“Mother . . .” he began, uncertain how to ask the right questions.
“I did not mention that Mrs. Fletcher is a widow. Her husband was a Regiment soldier. He passed away in the war, having gone to France a short time after they married,” she added.
At this news, Vincent softened. If Mrs. Fletcher was a widow who had taken in a child, of course she was in dire need of employment.
He felt somewhat ashamed of having been so quick to doubt her story.
“Well, Mother, it appears that you are quite happy with this whole arrangement,” Vincent said.
“Yes, indeed, I am. Besides, it is wonderful to have the laughter of a child in the house. It gives this space life again, you know. That is something that I have long forgotten, ever since you decided to grow up,” she said, adding the last part teasingly.
“Ah, yes. What a cruel thing to do to you,” Vincent said, although he really did feel quite guilty.
He had left his mother alone after his father had passed away. It had been the best thing for him. It had given him a bit of space and freedom, two things that he had greatly needed at the time.
But, for his mother, it had been quite different. He had never stopped worrying about her, and now she was confirming that he had been right to have concerns.
It was painful to know that she had been so lonely while he was away. Vincent began to wonder if he had made a mistake in leaving, no matter how beneficial it had been for him.
“Anyway, I am glad that they are here and that I am able to indulge a child for the time being. It does bring me joy,” his mother said.
“In that case, I trust that you have made the right choice in hiring Mrs. Fletcher and bringing the two of them here,” Vincent said.
“Yes, indeed. And you must tell me more about your own adventures. You have heard the boring tales of an old woman, what about those of a young man of adventure and excitement?” she asked.
Vincent leaned back and brushed a bit of dust from his shirt, a reminder of the lengthy travel.
“The West Indies are a unique place. And while they are not the place for any temperament, there are many reasons to be happy there,” Vincent said.
“Such as? What did you like? What did you dislike?” his mother asked.
Vincent chewed the inside of his cheek while considering her questions. His feelings on the matter were rather complex. It had been home for him in some ways, he had real emotion connected to aspects of his life, a fondness for the simplicity and quiet.
And yet, it had also been gravely difficult to be away from everything he knew. Vincent could hardly pretend that he was always happy there.
“Well, I ought to tell you my least favorite parts first. The storms. The storms could be terribly brutal, with waves higher than any clocktower. And the differences in culture with the people, always wondering if I was saying the wrong thing or might offend someone or be offended when that was not the intention,” Vincent said.
“But there were many things that I appreciated. My home was not a grand one. Of course, the English have built fine homes for ourselves in comparison to those in which the natives live, but it was small and simple compared to here. I rather felt comforted in the smallness,” he told her.
“And the food? What was it like?” she asked.
“Excellent. I was able to have some version of English food often, but I was fond of the local cuisine as well,” he told her.
“Well, if you have not had a proper British meal in quite some time, I do think we ought to make our way to the dining room. Lunch should be ready soon enough,” she told him.
Vincent followed his mother, and they arrived just in time for the meal. They passed his mother’s new companion and her little girl as they went. He imagined that they would be eating with the other staff once he and his mother had finished their meal.
But as he and his mother ate and chatted away, he was still curious. Much had changed in his absence, but Mrs. Fletcher and Celia were the most interesting of all.
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