“Are you certain you do not want me to come with you?”
Eleanor Ashford smiled at the genuine concern she could hear in her brother’s voice. She shook her head as she stopped in her tracks and turned to look at him.
“I am simply going to the market for some shopping, Edwin, not the battleground.”
Edwin Wimbledon cocked his brows in a way that Eleanor usually found charming and completely adorable. His eyes twinkled as he feigned surprise, his voice teasing.
“There is a difference?”
Unable to help herself, she chuckled, shaking her head.
“No, there isn’t, dear brother. However, you must believe that I can fight my battles. Beyond that, no one would recognize me in my veil and drab clothing.”
Edwin said nothing in response. He only took his time to look her over. Then, he smiled in agreement, satisfied by his perusal.
“You are right. No one would recognize you. However, if any problem arises, do not hesitate to call for me.”
Not missing a beat, Eleanor answered, “I won’t, Edwin.”
“Promise me, Eleanor.”
Again, she smiled, as her heart warmed by his affection.
He loved her dearly, she knew this beyond doubt. He had proven it in countless circumstances. She loved him just as fiercely in return.
“Truly, Edwin. I am certain that the people of London have been occupied with better scandals since my departure. Surely, they are not about to start wagging their tongues after so many years now, are they?”
He was going to say something in protest but she stopped him, a polite smile on her face.
“I promise, Edwin. If any matter arises, I shall call for you.”
Edwin covered the distance between them in three strides, and took her soft hands into his. His blue eyes searched her amber gaze.
“Thank you, Eleanor. You know I worry about you for good reason. You have had to suffer too much and if not for me, you wouldn’t be here. I want to protect you at all costs.”
This time, Eleanor smiled as her heart swelled with powerful emotions for her brother. She withdrew one hand from his, and reached up to caress his cheek.
“You worry too much. I am a grown woman now, and I can take care of myself. One who hears you speaking would assume that I am in grave danger.
“Do not be so grim, dear brother. There is nothing they could possibly throw at me that I would not be able to shake off. I am your duck, remember?”
For the first time since this conversation began, Edwin smiled brightly. Eleanor knew that all was well, in that moment.
“You have always been too strong, too stubborn and too wise for your age,” he said. “Fine, you win this round. I shall not stall you any longer.”
He released her other hand and took two steps back, then turned to look at the lady who had been standing beside them, quietly watching the scene unfold.
She was Frances Jones, Eleanor’s best friend and companion.
She was also the woman who her brother was in love with, but was too scared to pursue. However, the way Edwin looked at Frances in that moment, the way he had been looking at her in recent days, assured Eleanor that that would not remain the case for long.
His eyes shone with an entirely different kind of emotion. From the corner of her eye, Eleanor saw her lady’s companion flush pink and look away, breaking eye contact with Edwin. It thrilled her greatly.
She had hired Frances three years ago, when her husband had died. Eleanor had been so lonely, and had reckoned that having a companion would be lovely.
Frances was a baron’s daughter who had been in search of employment at the time. They had immediately liked each other and felt at ease with each other. Eleanor did not have a single regret.
Over the years, the two had come to develop a profound friendship that came with love, mutual respect and care for each other.
The only thing that would remove Frances from Eleanor’s service was marriage. Eleanor liked to think that, when her brother finally grew the courage to court Frances, the lady would remain in her life as more than just a friend. That she would become a sister to her.
The way she saw it, it was a beneficial situation either way.
After all, one of the reasons she had agreed to come to London this season, was to make sure that this summer did not pass by without seeing the both of them happily wedded in holy matrimony.
“Take care of her, Miss Jones,” Edwin pleaded, his voice soft.
Frances could barely hold his gaze as she responded. It was such an amusing thing to watch.
“I shall, sir. However, you more than anyone know that the lady is capable of caring for herself.”
“Yes. Still, it pleases my heart to know that you shall be with her.”
Frances murmured her response. Still avoiding his gaze, she sank in a shallow curtsy.
Edwin bowed in response, though it was completely unnecessary. He waited until Frances had risen, before returning his attention to Eleanor.
“Very well, then. I shall visit my business ventures to see how things are moving. Do not take too long. Night sets too quickly these days and the streets of London have become more dangerous over the years.”
“We shall be back before the sun sets, brother. Have a good day.”
“And you. Farewell.”
As those last words were said, Eleanor spun on her feet and began to head for the large mahogany doors that served as the fore entrance to the Ashford townhouse. Frances followed behind, and so did the other maids that were accompanying them on their journey.
As she reached the door, she paused and drew her veil over her nose. Once she had it arranged carefully and securely, she nodded at the door.
The butler, Mr. Yates, understood perfectly well, and proceeded to open the doors for his lady. Eleanor muttered words of appreciation as she walked past him.
A carriage was waiting by the time she was done descending the stairs. With the help of her footman, she climbed into it.
As soon as the other ladies were seated with her, she gave two knocks against the wall of the carriage. They took off, the horses sending the wheels rolling down the streets as they galloped.
The journey to the market would be a long one, Eleanor knew. Their townhouse was located in a quiet part of London, free from most of the noise and crowds.
It would be some time before they arrived at their destination. Eleanor surmised that it would be good to put it to use and assess her thoughts. The ride would be a quiet one, she knew.
As she looked out the window, taking in the obvious changes that had occurred since the last time she visited London, she acknowledged how grateful she often was for peace and quiet.
Eleanor immensely enjoyed the sound of silence for one reason: she could hear her thoughts, loud and clear.
She could sieve through them, walk through them, untie the knots that left her confused and throw away the things that threatened to make her spirit weary.
As the carriage took them further towards the market, the thought that took the fore post in her mind, was her conversation with Edwin.
Indeed, her brother had had good cause to worry about her wellbeing. Truly, it was not as though she was in any grave danger – certainly not physically. However, there was a great likelihood that she would come to emotional harm.
It had been three years. Three seasons since she last set foot on London soil.
Back home, when she had finally agreed to come to London with Edwin for this season, she had reckoned that she was now strong enough to return to a place that held unpleasant memories for her.
Too many unpleasant memories. The last time she had been in London, she had lost her husband. The only other man, aside her brother, that had truly loved her.
Even as she had mourned, the whispers had reached her. Such a shame a man like the Earl of Grenshire perished in this way. But it serves her right. She deserved it.
Those who had come into her home to share condolences had said spiteful words as they left, believing that the walls did not have ears. Oh, but they did, and they had whispered these words to Eleanor in return.
It had taken little time to learn that these words also roamed the streets of London. The moment she had felt strong enough to make the journey, she had left London for Grenshire, the county where her late husband had lorded over as its earl.
The county which she now oversaw as Lady Grenshire, its Countess.
She had remained in the county for the whole year that constituted her mourning period and after it had ended, she had refused to return to London, had refused to partake in any season for two more years.
Grenshire was peaceful. The people there loved their countess, they adored her and they respected her.
In London, well, she held no one’s regard. The people who lived in London did not give it freely, except when one made them bow by enforcing their power and status.
She was not one of such people to wield her powers that way. So, she had stayed where she was loved.
Her nose itched, and she lifted a hand to scratch it through her veil. She had not worn this veil in two years, it would surely take some time to get accustomed to.
After the mourning period had been completed, she had abandoned her black clothes for other drab colours – shades of brown, grey.
After another year, she had begun wearing clothes that had brighter colours, but not so bright that they called too much attention.
The moment Edwin had succeeded in convincing her to come to this season by his side, she had known that she would not be able to live such a life in London.
Eleanor was aware that a part of her wanted to hide from the people, from their vicious whispers. It mattered little. She was not concerned with defying that part of her.
She simply wanted to have a quiet season. Perhaps attend a few balls, see a few plays and opera performances, take some walks in the park – all the whilst, keeping her identity hidden.
She had made her household understand that, until she was ready to do otherwise, she was not to be called by her name outside of the townhouse.
Nevertheless, she knew that it was only a matter of time before word got around that Benjamin Ashford’s widow had returned to London. When that time came, Eleanor would decide the course of action. For now, she was quite content with living in the shadows.
They had arrived in London only two days ago. As refreshingly different as the air smelled, she could not bite back the feelings of nostalgia that threatened to overwhelm her.
If only Edwin had not requested this favour, so he could properly court Frances, she truly may not have given in. Alas, here she was.
Enough brooding, she chided herself, as the carriage rolled into the market. She was doing more than enough by hiding herself. Since she was here, it would be best to make the most of it.
Certain that no one would recognize her behind this veil, she was sure she could enjoy her time here in London. She had to.
These were the thoughts that remained on her mind as the carriage came to a stop, bringing her back.
As soon as she came to, the noise of the market’s commotion came rushing, filling her ears to the brim. She tore her gaze from the window, noting that she truly had not seen anything, but had simply been staring.
She turned to Frances who was staring at her with curious eyes.
“We are here, my lady.”
She flashed her friend a bright smile in return, eager to ease her worry. Frances knew her well enough to know that she had gotten lost in her thoughts, once more.
“Indeed, we are. Shall we?”
All the ladies were helped down from the carriage by the footman who had ridden alongside with the coachman in front.
As Eleanor’s feet touched the ground, she drew in a deep breath and looked around to take everything in. The stalls, and the stores. Errand boys running around, gentry and other people of status making their purchases.
The market was just as she remembered with only a few differences to mark changes. She was back, and out here, in the open.
A feeling of anxiety tried to rear its head, but she shut it off. None of that, not today, she told herself.
Looking at the servants she had brought with her, she gestured at the whole market, waiting to be explored. And with the brightest smile she could muster, though they wouldn’t see it, she said:
“Ladies, shall we begin?”
“Your Grace, do you hear me, at all?”
Charles Duncan raised his head to look at the man seated in front of him. There was a pause as he tried to concentrate on the question that had been asked.
He smiled at the young man whom he considered to be his right hand.
“Ah, my apologies, Winston. I got lost in thoughts, trying to decipher what is wrong with these records. Something seems not quite right. It is as though there is a confusion somewhere. I only can’t seem to determine what it is.”
He sighed, rubbing his face with his hand.
He very much disliked it when his accounts did not balance. He knew this was no fault of his accounts’ officer. Someone, somewhere, somehow, must have created the wrong records.
“The ledger, Your Grace?” Kennedy Winston, asked.
Charles nodded his head. “Yes. The total sum here is above two thousand pounds. However, we have spent a sum of over three thousand pounds. I do believe that we must have purchased something that is not accounted for.”
“Have you asked the Dowager Duchess, Your Grace? She may have bought something without your knowledge. You know how women are. Her Grace may have forgotten to mention it to the accounts’ keeper.”
Once again, Charles went into thought as he considered this.
His mother was no frivolous spender, and she never forgot to inform the accounts’ keeper of purchases she made. However, there was always a first time.
Beyond that, with the season around the corner, his mother had been doing a lot of shopping with his younger sister. She loved nice things and, once in a while, fancied spoiling herself.
“You know what, Winston? I believe this the most probable answer. I shall speak to my mother about this. I am certain she will remember easily, if that is the case.
“If it is not, then we may have to bring out all the receipts and make certain the issue is not from the entry.”
“Of course, Your Grace.”
Charles nodded, willing to put the matter aside. However, something remained in his mind, gnawing at him.
It was not a good feeling, and whenever he had such bad feelings, something terrible always ended up happening.
He would know. He had had years of experience to ascertain that it was no fluke. Well, as soon as we are done with this discussion, I will see Mother, he thought.
“You may carry on, Winston. You were saying something before my thoughts stole me away from this meeting.”
“Indeed, Your Grace. I was talking about the Larson investment. The runners from Bow Street have come with their reports. They suspect that Lord Larson is indeed, hiding something. They uncovered details that point to bankruptcy. I asked them to investigate further.”
Winston paused to search his brief bag for some papers. He soon found all that he was looking for, and handed them over to Charles in a neat stack.
Charles accepted them and began to flip through the papers. His eyes widened as he went further.
When he was done, he looked up at Winston. “All of these are reports from the firm. These show that they are in so much debt already.”
Winston bobbed his head, and adjusted in his seat, so he could draw closer.
“The runners say that they have also seen him frequenting gaming halls in the past few weeks. Although, he wears a disguise in an attempt to be discrete. He also hires a coach. It is quite easy to tell it’s him though.”
Charles relaxed into his sofa and place his hand on his jaw. He heaved a deep sigh.
Larson’s firm was a merchant company that dealt in importing furniture and clothing materials from the continent. They had been in the business for decades, and had once been the leading firm.
However, lately, they had been relegated to the background. Now, Charles knew why. Larson was taking out funds, and putting nothing back in.
“Do you think this is how Larson got into so much debt in the first place? He must have gambled it all away. I have never had the chance to play a game of cards with him, but I have heard that he is not so much of a worthy opponent.”
“Word on the streets also says that he is a very proud one at that, a sore loser who does not know when to cut his losses. He must have bet away all of his fortune.
“Quite sad, if you ask me,” Winston said. “He had succeeded in running the firm, and yet ran his family’s heritage to the ground.”
Charles smiled sadly as he remembered his late father. “Father had told me, just before the illness took him away, that the late Lord Larson would have done better leaving the firm in his nephew’s hands. The boy has acted like Father had suspected he would. A shame.”
“What could you do, Your Grace? He came to you with a handsome proposal. I am sure he must have gone to others too. He wants you to invest in a business that has nothing to give in return.”
Again, Charles cracked a smile. It was a small one.
Winston was one of the few people he smiled around. The boy had been in his service for eight years, since he was only fourteen. He ran all of Charles’ errands. He also took care of matters that Charles did not absolutely have to attend to, himself.
Charles was proud of how far they had come. Winston had always been a bright lad, but now, he was so much wiser.
He had also developed an uncanny knack for business. Charles had plans to make him the official manager of his company when the young man clocked twenty-five.
“The proposal was handsome indeed. I never would have had cause to investigate if I had not gotten an untoward feeling about it.”
The same untoward feeling that had led him to find out the truth about his sham marriage, all those years ago.
Back then, he had been ungrateful for it, believing that blissful ignorance would have been the best. He had later realized that learning the truth, was much better than living a lie.
“We shall have to act fast, of course. Make certain that no one falls into his traps.”
He took one more look at the documents.
“For now, we shall wait for more proof from the runners. It is quite clear that Larson plans to use our money to pay off his debts, and perhaps, run away. Not on my watch.”
A sudden thought came to him.
“I believe there is someone else we must bring into this. My brother-in-law, Thomas. Larson went to him with a proposal too, I believe. Thomas is a merchant by blood and bone. He may have better ideas as to how to bring Larson to justice.”
“I agree, Your Grace. As always, a wise decision,” the young man concluded, smiling. It flattered Charles.
“Thank you, Winston. You have done a good job with this one. Are there any other reports?”
“Yes, Your Grace…”
The young man continued, and this time, Charles listened attentively.
They conversed at length about the family business, and also, affairs of his dukedom, Finchester. They were almost rounding off their discussion when his mother stepped into the study.
She had two servants on her trail, and they both carried a tray of meal servings in their hands.
“Ah. I knew you two would still be here, talking away. It has been three hours and not once have you requested for even tea. I decided if you would not come out for a meal, then I shall bring the meal to you.”
Winston rose to greet her, his face lighting up with a smile. It was common knowledge that Charles’s mother saw the baron’s son as hers. He also regarded her as the mother he never had.
He bowed and rose, before going to kiss her hand. “Your Grace, you are far too kind. You look lovely today, as always. Such ageless beauty.”
The Dowager Duchess of Finchester smiled at the flattery. “Charles’ influence on you shows by the day. Only, this one has ceased to put his sweet words to use.”
She eyed him, and he blissfully ignored her. He knew what she was on about. However, today was no day to discuss such things.
The servants came to the table that stood between Winston and Charles, and deposited the trays. After pouring them wine, they curtsied and took their leave.
His mother was about to follow suit when he stopped her, remembering the accounts.
“There seems to be a little difficulty with the accounts. Something appears to be amiss. A total sum of three thousand pounds and then some change, went out of the purse in the past month. However, this ledger only accounts for two thousand.”
The Duchess’ eyes widened. She quickly came forward to take the ledger from him. A quick glance was all she needed to see the problem.
“Yes. You are right. I see where the mistake is.”
Charles heaved a sigh of relief. Winston had been right. His mother had made some purchase. She must have remembered now.
“All of the household items we purchased from Mr. Raleigh seem to be less than the amount of the actual purchases. Right here, it says we paid two hundred and fifty pounds for the gas lamps. We paid four hundred, Charles.”
Charles’ brow raised in question. What was his mother on about?
“You mean you did not make a purchase you failed to mention?”
She turned to give him an incredulous look. “When have I ever? Besides, I have too many things already. I have no need for anything new at the moment.”
She continued, “All of the jewellery and clothes I bought with your sister will last me the season. And Thomas took care of them all.”
They had gotten it wrong then. And if his mother was right about Mr. Raleigh, their trusted merchant…
“Mother, if what you are saying is true, this means that Mr. Raleigh has been collecting a particular sum from the staff, but writing something else on the receipts?”
His mother did not reply immediately. There was a pause and she appeared to be in thoughts.
“Or, the servants whom we have been sending to make the purchase, have been hiking the prices for their benefits. We can only confirm this by speaking to them.”
The servants? Why would they? He trusted his household staff and he rewarded them with handsome wages. And Mr. Raleigh had been the family’s supplier for years. What reason would he have to start deceiving them now?
“You are right, Mother. The only way to be sure, is by speaking to them. I do believe the hike was put on several other purchases, so that it wouldn’t be noticed. They all have summed up to a thousand pounds.”
“Too much money for anyone to think to steal, believing it would go unnoticed. But greed knows no contentment.”
Charles could not agree more. He nodded at his mother, and she nodded in return. As she spun to take her leave, he turned to look at Winston who had been quiet all this while.
“We must eat. It seems to me that we have a long day ahead of us. First, we shall go to the market to speak with Mr. Raleigh. Then, we shall go to Thomas. Afterwards, we may meet with the runners.”
It was settled. They delved into the delicious meal of bread and caribou stew. Afterwards, they stepped out of the house to continue this tiring day.
Full and busy it may be, but the emptiness Charles carried inside him failed to be filled. Just as it failed for years now.
He wondered if work was the answer. He wondered if there was any answer at all.
He wondered if he was doomed to forever feel incomplete and unsatisfied.
And so terribly alone.
The hours passed by quickly, as they moved from store to store, and with every extra moment they spent in the market, Eleanor felt her inhibitions begin to leave her.
By the time the third hour clocked, she knew that she could proudly say that she felt truly free and relaxed.
She had other stops to make before heading back to the townhouse. The library was one of them. Remembering her promise to Edwin, she concluded that it would be best to leave the market, sooner rather than later.
Just as she voiced out this thought to Frances, who agreed, a commotion broke out, catching her attention. Suddenly, everyone was going east, where they could hear the noise coming from.
Eleanor shared an intrigued look with Frances and when her lady nodded, she did the same.
Curious to see what was causing the hullabaloo, they too began walking in that direction. By the time they arrived at the scene, a crowd had formed, obstructing their views from what was truly happening.
Squaring her shoulders, Eleanor held her head high and her spine straight. With that regal tone of command she rarely used, she spoke.
A path began to clear for her upon those simple words. It was the effect of the regal tone, and when they turned to see that she was a lady indeed, more people stepped aside.
This continued until she stood in front of the crowd, and had a clear view of what was happening.
A quick look at the situation was all she needed to understand the matter.
There, was a trader’s store with loaves of bread and fruits arranged in front, in an enticing manner that was sure to draw buyers. In front of the store stood an angry-looking bald man.
A brown apron was tied to his waist. A loaf of bread was pressed in his one hand, while the other hand held on tightly to the shirt of a little boy.
The boy looked not more than ten. His face was set in unremorseful, hard lines, but Eleanor was more concerned about his eyes.
His eyes held fear, pain, and a twinge of tears. This boy was scared, and was simply putting up a façade of bravado.
Sadly, Eleanor was aware that people often saw what they wanted to see. All they would see in this moment, was an unrepentant thief, and not a hungry little boy who had had to steal, for lack of better choices.
“Ye must think yerself smart and fast, eh? Do ye not? Stealin’ mi bread an’ runnin’ off in a hurry, believin’ I wouldn’t catch ye, did ye? After all, an ol’ man like me would never be able to run like a young lad like ye, eh?”
The trader’s hands fisted the boy’s shirt more tightly, drawing him closer to stare at him menacingly. The trader was bent at his waist in a bid to remain at eye level with the boy.
The boy held his gaze, dauntless. Eleanor could see his legs wobble and his hands, which fell at his sides, shake.
She observed his form. He was truly skinny, with delicate bones and little flesh to cover up these bones. His clothes were brown from dirt and his hair, too long from going for a long time without a proper cut.
Her heart flew to her throat, beating fast for this poor child. Something in her gut twisted, but she held her peace, wanting to watch the scene unfold, knowing that she could only step in when the situation truly called for it.
The trader’s bellow shook her out of her thoughts, once more. “Answer me boy! Ye gone deaf? Or mute? Ye an’ yer likes ha’v been stealin’ mi things for too long now. Any more and I might hafta close up and go into the streets with mi family!
“No more! Ye shall be the first one I’ve caught, but I shall do well to make a good example of ye. What do ye suggest I do to ye? Eh boy?”
Still, the boy said nothing. His frown grew harder by the minute. This only angered the trader more.
As the man’s eyes flashed red, he threw the bread aside and lifted the boy up with two hands on his shirt.
The boy dangled in the air, and Eleanor could hear amused gasps around her.
“Ye not gon’ talk? I’ll teach ye how to speak and not to steal again!”
He raised his hand in that moment, and Eleanor could not resist shutting her eyes and turning away as a loud smack sounded in the air.
The silence that had held got disrupted by a loud cheer.
“Serves him right!”
“Hit him again!”
“Damn street urchins!”
“This will teach them not to steal!”
The wave of anger that had begun to rise in Eleanor, pushed higher until it was on the tip of her tongue.
She opened her eyes and looked back just in time to see the trader threatening to strike another slap across the boy’s chin.
She saw a tear drop from the boy’s eyes, but his lips remained set in hard lines. Her heart went out to the poor child.
As the cheers continued, her anger and disgust grew. Such inhuman treatment! How could they not have a twinge of pity for a hungry child?
“Yer a tough one, eh? I shall hand you over to the constables for a proper whoopin’. When they’re done with ye, ye’ll not be able to sit on your behind for weeks, ye’ll see. It’d be a miracle if the skin on yer back don’t peel.”
He raised his hand to slap the boy once more. Having had enough, Eleanor stopped him before he could strike again.
“No more! I forbid you to lay another finger on that child!”
The trader’s hand stopped mid-air and he turned around to look for whom the command had come from.
Eleanor stepped forward, her chin raised.
“Looking for me?” she said calmly, the anger she felt, barely remaining beneath the surface. Only if she had no veil on and they could see her face, they would apprehend how livid she was at this display of unabashed cruelty.
“Let the child go. How much is the cost of what he stole? I shall pay five times for it, to cover for all the losses you might have acquired in the past one week.”
The trader let the boy go instantly and when he fell to the ground with a thud, Eleanor winced.
She would take the boy home, and see to it that any injuries he had would be treated. She would also make sure she offered him a home and employment in her household.
She could not take every child off the street, but she could take a reasonable number. And she would.
She stood her ground, her chin in the air as the trader advanced towards her. In his full height, he towered over her by a couple of inches and he had a strong build that gave him a dominating look.
She was not afraid. If the little boy could stand his ground, so could she.
Besides, he would never hit a woman, all the more, a lady. It was forbidden. Surely, he knew he would pay a dear cost if he thought to attempt it.
“And who might ye be, milady? What makes ye think you have a say in this matter?”
She saw him search her eyes which was the only visible feature on her face. For a moment, her heart flipped and picked up a rough pace. She wondered if he would identify her.
She was quick to see the absurdity of her fear. She had never met this man in her entire life. She would remember, she never forgot faces.
Her voice was firm, loud and clear when she responded.
“My identity is of no consequence to you. Since you decided to take the law into your hands and make a public spectacle of this matter, I do believe it is the concern of every person you have drawn to this scene. Shopping activities have been disrupted and I find this particular spectacle rather unpleasing. I wish it to end.
“Hand the boy over to me, instead of the constables. You get your money and I shall see to it that you never see his face on these streets again.”
“What? Ye think takin’ this one off the streets is gon’ make any difference?”
His words fanned the embers of anger that had begun to burn inside of her. Disgust for this man filled her.
“Give him five pounds.”
Frances widened her eyes in question but she knew better than to question Eleanor in public. So, she withdrew a pouch from her reticule and did as she was told.
The man received the money too eagerly and counted it. When he saw that it was indeed five pounds, his jaw dropped.
“That loaf is worth no more than five cents. This is beyond five times what he stole.”
“I do believe you shall be gracious enough to give out bread to other children like him, who may happen around your store, would you not?”
Eleanor raised her chin proudly. “If our actions can make a difference, even if only for a day, then it is our duty, bestowed upon us by our Lord, to make them so.”
The man was apparently at a loss for words, but Eleanor had no interest in hearing any more words from him. She simply stepped around him and walked over to the boy. He still lay on the ground, looking up at her in awe.
Murmurs rose around them, but she ignored it all. Reaching out her hand, she held it mid-air and offered the boy the kindest of gazes she could. She needed the child to trust that she would not hurt him if he went with her.
She remained that way for some seconds, aware of the hundreds of gazes on her in that moment. It gnawed at her, but feeling slightly protected behind her veil, she managed to keep her anxiety at bay.
Just when she begun to lose hope, the little boy reached out his hand and took hers.
A surge of relief soared inside of her, overwhelming her with happiness. She smiled as she helped him up.
Only, as she straightened herself and turned to go back the way she had come, an unfortunate thing happened.
Her veil fell.
Shock held her frozen as her face became bare for the whole market to see.
It took her seconds to shake the shock off, reach for her veil, and put it back in place. Nevertheless, those seconds were enough for people who remembered her face to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
The murmuring increased and she could hear people gasp aloud.
An English rose, they’d called her once, and her beauty and grace were admired by many. But then things changed, and she was named a flower poisonous.
A Night Rose, the rumors called her, briary and treacherous, that brought only bad luck.
She turned to look at Frances, whose eyes were wide open in apprehension. Every reasonable thought vanished from Eleanor’s head.
She felt as though she had just been stripped naked in front of all these many people. No matter what they said, she felt she had no thorns to protect her whatsoever.
As she stood, rooted in that spot, she looked around the crowd and saw thoughts of her on their faces. They were unpleasant thoughts, written in their smirks, and frowns, and sneers.
Silently, she sent a prayer up above, wishing that the ground open and swallow her.
Then, she felt something squeeze her hand and she looked down to see the boy she had rescued, looking up at her reassuringly.
He squeezed again as if offering her strength. It was a much-needed gesture and Eleanor welcomed the strength he gave.
As she drew it in, her airway finally cleared and she could suddenly breathe again.
The stale breath left her, giving way for fresh breath to flood her lungs, and she realized that she had not even been aware of the fact that she had been holding her breath.
Alas, now she could breathe and by breathing, she could think. The first thought that came to mind was to leave, with her pride intact.
Deciding to do just that, she squared her shoulders once more, and rose her chin in the air. Then, she began to walk.
She was almost at Frances’s side when the trader spoke again, causing her to halt.
“Lady Grenshire? Cow’s skin! Who would have thought? Ye have returned to London, after all these years, and already taking in strays, milady?”
He scoffed. “Do ye believe that forgiveness will be earned ‘cause of it? That yer sins will be erased?”
His words pierced right through her like a spear, hitting Eleanor where it hurt the most.
Her heart squeezed and her chest tightened. She contemplated the wisest thing to do in this situation, whether to give him a befitting reply or simply walk away.
The words of a man she had loved greatly rung in her ears, and as those words did, she saw his smiling eyes and lips. She remembered the day as clear as sky.
“Don’t get in the mud with pigs, dear Eleanor. They will enjoy it, you won’t.”
Her decision was apparent. She kept her back turned to the trader, unwilling to dignify him with a response.
Just as she was about to resume walking, another voice stopped her.
“That is no way to speak to a lady now, is it? You may be common folk, but surely, you were taught lessons on propriety and basic etiquette, were you not?”
Eleanor’s body turned of its own will to look at the gentleman who had come to her rescue.
There he was, standing tall and proud in all his glory. The most handsome man she had seen in a while.
Her eyes held his for a brief moment, and she saw that clear grey gaze that looked like it held a million secrets. She would know about secrets in a person’s eyes. She saw such reflection in her own, whenever she looked in the mirror.
Her throat suddenly felt dry and as she swallowed, the man broke eye contact and turned to look sternly at the trader.
“What say you, Mr. Rogers? Have you suddenly gone deaf? Mute?”
He started walking closer to them and as he did, the trader took steps back, as if afraid of what this gentleman would do to him.
A hush enveloped the crowd, halting the loud murmurs that had been raging just seconds ago.
The man finally came to stop just two feet away from Eleanor, and five feet away from the trader. This closely, Eleanor could see his features more clearly. His face had hard lines, a chiseled jaw and tight lips.
His eyes were small, and atop his head, sat a mass of neat blond hair which he held tied back. The same blond hair ran down the side of his face along the line of his jaw.
His skin was fair but still darker than hers, no doubt by much time in the sun. This close, Eleanor realized that he was even better-looking than she had presumed.
The fact that she noticed this man in such manner, stirred an uncomfortable feeling within her.
“Your Grace…” the trader stammered.
Eleanor jerked her head in his direction, then looked back at the man. Your Grace?
Indeed, he truly appeared to be a man of high status. The way he carried himself and the way his shoulders stood broad and squared.
It was the posture of a man who knew his worth, the power it brought him, and how to wield that power.
His dressing was also impeccable, in the latest fashion. He wore a pair of grey pantaloons, black hessian boots, a white shirt, grey double-breasted waist coat, and a black tail coat.
His cravat spotted a delicate and skilful embroidery and it was tied in the fanciest of knots. He held his hat in his hand – he had it taken off as he approached her. His other hand held an elegantly carved stick, with a silver crest as its crown.
He pinned a heavy gaze on the trader and Eleanor could feel the man – Mr. Rogers, as he had been called – shrivel beside her. Surely, the identity of this man was well-known and he was well-respected. But who could he be?
“Have you nothing to say for yourself, Mr. Rogers?”
“No, Your Grace, of course not. I apologize. I am aware of the simple manners of the society. I should never have used such language on a lady, how much more, a lady of apparent status. I overstepped.”
All the while, he kept his head bowed, not daring to hold the gentleman’s gaze. It was a wonder that he had managed to utter the sentence without stuttering, or wetting his breeches. From where Eleanor stood, it appeared as though he was fighting a battle against doing just that.
The man seemed unimpressed by the show of ingenuine remorse, as unimpressed as Eleanor felt. Nevertheless, he went ahead to say, “It is not me who you owe an apology to, Mr. Rogers. It is the lady.”
Rogers swiftly turned to Eleanor, and dipped in a very deep bow. Earnestly, he offered his apologies.
“Milady, I do not know what overcame me. That was impetuous and absolutely impertinent of me. I pray thee, forgive my misgivings. It shall ne’er happen again. I was wrong. I offer my sincerest apologies.”
Anyone could see through the farce. Eleanor saw through it most of them all. Nevertheless, she had grown weary of the entire event and wished for it to be brought to an end.
So, heaving a deep sigh, she simply said, “Consider all forgiven, Mr Rogers. All I request is that you remember our business, and feed more hungry children this week. I bid you good day.”
“Most gracious, my lady! You are most gracious. I thank ye!”
Those particular words sounded sincere, but Eleanor could not be bothered to be moved. He was simply happy that he had been left off easily.
Ignoring him, she turned to look at the gentleman who had come to her aid.
The way Rogers had addressed him, let her know that he was a duke. Swiftly, she sunk into a shallow but graceful curtsy.
“Many thanks, Your Grace,” she said as she rose. “You did not have to, but you came to my rescue nonetheless. I shall remember this kind deed. You are indeed gracious.”
For the first time since she set her eyes upon the man, she saw his lips perk up in what she could only hope was a smile – a very small one.
It was gone in an instant.
“I did it not for gratitude, simply for the fact that it was what was right to be done. Sadly, our society loses regard for the women folk day by day. And society comprises of men like Mr. Rogers here.”
He looked at the boy whom she held. Then he looked back at her, and nodded his head in the little boy’s direction.
“A great deed you did, saving the child from the spectacle. The constables’ office is the worst place for children like this to go. No one owns them, so they are treated as nobodies.
“I wish it were not so, yet it is sadly the world we live in. It is something I hope to change in good time, nevertheless.”
There was a pause as he looked at the crowd which had begun to thin out. Then, he returned his gaze to her.
“I had been watching the scene unfold and was just about to intervene, when you did. You meant what you said about caring for the child, did you not?”
Eleanor had been so captivated by his voice and the way his words flowed out powerfully, yet softly, that it took her a moment to process the question he had asked.
She shook her head as she did, bringing herself back to the present.
One look at the boy who looked back at her with hopeful eyes, confirmed the decision she had made in a haste. “Yes. I meant every word of it.”
“Very good then. These streets are no place for a young girl.”
Eleanor was about to counter that she was no girl but a grown woman, but she quickly fathomed he was speaking of the boy she held.
“A girl?” she asked, the confusion in her voice loud.
The man looked at the child once more, and back at her. “Yes. Anyone with trained eyes would see at first glance that that is no boy.
“The bone structure is different, delicate. Facial features are feminine and hair is too long and healthy for a boy to have grown it.”
Eleanor’s eyes widened at this revelation, and she took one good look at the child.
Her eyes widened further when she saw the truth of his words for herself. Ah. Indeed, the gentleman was right.
The girl had done a good job to disguise herself in men’s clothing. Yet, on a closer look, it was obvious. She was a girl, through and true.
A fresh wave of anger surged through Eleanor again. She fought to keep it bridled.
To think that the girl would have had to suffer such injustice! And what if the wrong person had realized that she was a girl child?
It was not spoken of, nevertheless, it was no secret that there were men who derived pleasure from doing evil things to little children.
Indeed, these streets were no place for a girl. More than before, she felt a sense of protectiveness towards this girl. She looked into those blue pools and a message passed between the two of them.
She would protect her. She would keep her in her care, under her wing, and the girl would never have to steal or beg for food for as long as Eleanor had the power to control that.
Eleanor had no children. In all probability, she would never have children, no matter how much this pained her. But she could help children that weren’t hers.
A powerful urge to take the girl into her embrace rose in her, but she dampened it. Later, she promised herself. Then, she looked up at the gentleman.
“That was quite perceptive, my lord. I never guessed it. Thank you. Now, I am even gladder that I stepped in.”
He nodded as he wore his hat. “As I am. I also express admiration for your kind heart. Now, you must forgive me for I am in a hurry and I have to take my leave.”
He looked at the young girl by her side, once again. His eyes reflected the kindness in his heart. “I am to be assured that she is in good hands?”
Eleanor nodded her head. “I shall take very good care of her. I am responsible for her from now on.”
This time, he was the one who nodded. Then, he bent in a bow. After rising, he said, “In that case my lady, I wish you God’s best. Fare well.”
She was charmed, utterly. “Fare well,” she repeated his words.
He cracked a small smile once more, and tipped his hat before turning to go.
It was not until he got onto his carriage, that she realized she had not learned his name.
Oh, so much for the encounter.
Nevertheless, she had thanked him well enough. That was a comforting thought to consider. It was just as well.
The whole scene was over, and now, they could return home. For a moment there, she had forgotten about her trepidation at being discovered. Now that it was over, it came to gnaw at her skin.
She tugged the girl’s hand, eager to be on their way. “Come, child, we must go now.”
With two strides, she joined Frances and her other maids and sent for the carriage to be brought around.
There had been enough shopping for today. Even the visit to the library would have to be postponed. She suddenly felt tired and needed to rest.
More than that, she could not wait to ask the girl questions about how she got to be on the streets in the first place.
They did not have to wait long before the carriage came to where they were. One by one, they were helped in by the footman. As Eleanor climbed, she caught wind of some whispers.
“Wasn’t that the Duke of Finchester? His Grace, Charles Duncan?” It was a woman’s voice.
Eleanor paused mid-way, curious to catch the rest of the conversation.
“Yes. It was. Word has it that he is a fearsome man, and quite formidable to make an enemy of,” another woman replied.
“Oh, but he is handsome, is he not? It’s been two years since he lost his wife. Do you think he may be considering taking another wife this season?” the first woman asked again.
“Who knows? Even if he is, common folk like you and I do not stand a chance. Surely, you know this,” the second answered.
Deciding that she had heard enough, Eleanor took the last step and fully entered the carriage.
When they had all settled in, she gave three knocks, and the wheels began to roll the way home.
Charles Duncan, the Duke of Finchester, she thought. In her mind’s eye, she combined the name with the golden head and those fierce grey eyes.
A flutter in her chest made itself known, but Eleanor decided to blame it solely on the excitement of the day.
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