Authors: Maureen Driscoll
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Adult Romance
He’d originally met Lord Ridgeway at the end of the
war when Victor had been in a hospital recovering from the burns which had
scarred the right side of his face and body. His lordship had been a
lieutenant in the Guards and was there to visit one of his men. But through
the subsequent visits, Victor and his lordship had had a few laughs and spoken
at length of the war that had laid waste to so many men.
It was only by chance that he’d met the earl again seven
years later. The intervening years had not been good for either of them.
While Victor had returned home after the war, his severe burns had scared away
many of the customers in his parents’ country shop. To make certain they didn’t
lose their business, Victor had invented a job offer in London, then gone to
seek his fortune.
Unfortunately, he’d not been able to find permanent
employment, given his appearance. He’d survived working job to job and couldn’t
be choosy with his employers. He’d done some illegal work, but had never
stolen or hurt anyone. But he was nearly destitute when fate put him in the
earl’s path once again.
The earl had been without money and in search of a
rich bride. He’d needed a valet, yet could not afford to pay one. Despite
having no experience, Victor had worked for him in exchange for room and board.
On their way back to Wiltshire for Christmas, they’d been stranded at Lord
Clayton’s estate, where they each met his future wife. The current Lady
Ridgeway had been the governess for Lord Clayton’s sisters and Victor’s wife
Maude had been a kitchen maid at the estate.
Now they were all in London and while Victor would do
anything to help Lady Winifred, he was not looking forward to his stay in a
city that held so many unpleasant memories.
He’d just unpacked Lord and Lady Ridgeway’s trunks and
was about to do the same for Lord Layton, when the butler, Mr. Heskiss,
appeared. Butlers in general were an insufferable lot. They too often equated
their worth with their master’s rank. The butler at Lord Clayton’s estate had
told Victor to eat in a separate room so he wouldn’t spoil everyone’s
appetite. He could only imagine what a duke’s butler would expect of him.
“Mr. Stemple,” said Mr. Heskiss. “I see you are
getting his lordship settled. Please let me know if there is anything he – or
anyone – requires.”
“Thank you, Mr. Heskiss,” said Victor, hoping to make
a quick escape to Lord Layton’s suite.
But the butler stopped him before he could walk too
far down the hallway. “I would like to have a word with you, Mr. Stemple,
about a rather delicate matter.”
Victor sighed. He had a feeling he’d eat separately
again. At least he knew Maude would join him. And he’d never need more than
that. “How may I help you, Mr. Heskiss?”
The man was a bit uncomfortable.
. If you
couldn’t see past a bloke’s appearance you should be a little uneasy.
Mr. Heskiss continued. “We, the staff, have never had
the pleasure of meeting an Algonquin Indian before and, quite frankly, we are
at a loss. Are there special dishes Miss Emerson likes to eat? Are there
foods she avoids? Are there any special customs that would make her feel at
home? Anything she requires for a religious practice? It is our job to make
all of his grace’s guests feel at home, but we are concerned that we might
inadvertently say or do something wrong. Cook is particularly worried that her
dinners might be lacking. And we certainly can’t have a little girl go
hungry. Can you please help us?”
Victor hoped he didn’t look as shocked as he felt. It
was certainly not what he’d been expecting. “I’m embarrassed to say I don’t
know the answers to those questions. I haven’t noticed that Miss Emerson has
any particular preferences. In fact, she is very eager to please, so if we
have somehow offended her in Wiltshire, she has never mentioned it. Lord James
has never given us particular instructions regarding his daughter and he is a
very devoted father. But if I do learn anything, I will be certain to let you
“Thank you. And if any of the Emersons or Lord Layton
have particular preferences, I would be most appreciative if you would inform
me. Ah, Mr. Rigg.”
A smartly dressed servant in his middle thirties
“Mr. Stemple, please allow me to introduce Mr. Rigg.
He is the butler for Lord and Lady Edward at Marston Vale and his wife helps
take care of the children.”
“She mostly takes care of me,” said Mr. Rigg with a
grin, as he shook Victor’s hand.
Heskiss continued. “Lord James asked if it might be
possible to house you and your good wife together, Mr. Stemple. We have placed
you in the nursery, next to Mr. and Mrs. Rigg.”
Rigg explained. “The nursery is unused, since his
lord and ladyship keep the babe with them in their room and Miss Kellington is
in the bedchamber on the other side of their sitting room. So, the nursery is
actually one of the quietest places to sleep. I can show you where it is, if
you have a moment.”
“Thank you,” said Victor, still unable to comprehend
the kind treatment he was receiving. “But now I have a delicate question to
ask. At my wife’s former house of employment, it was not safe for women to
walk the halls at night. I do not mean any insult, but…”
“But you are simply a protective husband,” said Mr.
Heskiss with a smile. “I am glad of it. Too many females in this world are
unprotected, including some who are married. This is as safe a house as I have
ever heard of. Indeed, if something untoward were to occur, his grace would
have the offender prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, after first
being taken outside and, well, punished.”
“I wouldn’t want to go up against his grace,” said Mr.
Rigg. “Or any of the Kellingtons, to be honest. Now, if you’d like to see
your bedchamber, I’d be happy to show you and I’ll have my wife look out for
As Victor accepted the offer, he hoped the same good
fortune that seemed to be finding him as of late would also shine on Lady
Winifred. For she certainly needed it.
Win was exceedingly nervous. She had deliberated on how
much she was going to tell her family, knowing what it would do to them to hear
her story. But she realized she was done with lies of all kinds. And
especially now that her very life was at stake, it was important to be as honest
Her brothers were much as she remembered, but
different. They were men now. Fully grown men. Not like their father. Never
like their father. But noblemen, in the truest sense of the word.
Rose was a beautiful young woman and, from what James
had told her, quite intelligent. It had been Rose’s idea to move the family
into the dower house so they could rent out the manor for much needed income.
It was supporting the family now, along with some income from Colin’s writing.
Perhaps there would be enough money from Pierce’s estate to help them out. She
could not presume to move home, knowing how she must have disappointed them
through the years, but she would do what she could to help them.
“I suppose we should begin,” said Win, her heart
pounding and her palms sweating. “I know you are most concerned about the
murder charges. I am, as well. And I hope I do not need to tell you I did not
“No, Win,” said Colin quietly. “You do not need to
say it. Though I have a feeling I’m going to wish I’d killed him before long.”
“And that is my greatest fear – that you’ll do
something foolish to help me. I couldn’t bear it if any of you were harmed
because of me.”
“But I failed you,” said Colin.
“No, Colin. You cannot take any of this upon
yourself. None of you can. I will tell you my story only to help you
understand what has happened. But you cannot use it to excoriate yourselves.”
Win took a deep breath. All eyes were upon her. “As you know, father
arranged my marriage for money. Pierce paid off his debts, but also bought up
markers that father didn’t tell him about.”
“Why wouldn’t he disclose all of his debts?” asked
“I do not know. Nor do I know to whom father owed
money or how much. But it had to be either illegal or immoral, because Pierce
told me if word got out, father would be ruined. And so would Colin and the
rest of you by extension.”
Colin snorted. “Being born an Emerson pretty much
ruined us. The old earl and I got into the biggest fight of our lives when he
announced he was marrying you off. And I gave as good as I got. I guess that
was one thing the Guards was good for. I finally learned how to fight dirty.
I cannot believe Pierce thought he had any power over us.”
“But he did,” said Win. “He controlled father. The
two of them could have made life extremely difficult for both you and Nick.”
“Oh, my dear sweet girl,” said Colin. “I am so sorry
you stayed in your marriage for Nick and me. We would have gladly suffered any
hardship to get you away from him.”
“Well, it…..it wasn’t just you,” said Win quietly.
“Please do not say you suffered on my account,” said
“It was a mistake to speak of this.”
“No, Win,” said James. “It wasn’t. You must continue.
When did he start beating you?”
“He first struck me on our wedding trip,” she said
quietly, staring at her hands in her lap. This was so humiliating. But she
also wanted her family to know she had not turned her back on them willingly.
“I knew it was a possibility in any marriage. But the first real beating did
not occur until we returned to London.”
“Why didn’t you come to us?” asked Nick. “I
understand why you couldn’t have returned home. But you would have been safe
with me. And Colin and I could have withstood any scandal.”
“I tried to run away. I made the mistake of taking my
maid into my confidence but she betrayed me. Pierce flew into a rage. He told
me if I ever humiliated him by trying to leave again, he would…he would have
father marry Rose off when she was sixteen, to a man of his choosing. I could
only imagine the type of man that would be. I could not bear for it to
happen. I had to protect her at all cost.”
“Oh, Win,” said Rose, choking back tears. “This is my
“No! Never! It was Pierce’s fault. But I had to make
the best of my new life. The hardest part was when he made me cut off contact
with all of you, other than what he deemed appropriate. A part of me died
inside when I lost you and I couldn’t even tell you why.”
Rose went to her sister and carefully folded her into
her arms. “You never lost us. Any of us. Just as you will never lose us
again. We are here for you now and forever.”
Win could feel the love of her little sister. The
love of the others in the room. It had been so long since she’d felt anything
other than hatred and contempt from the man who’d kept her a virtual prisoner.
She was afraid she’d awaken to find this was only a dream.
Win couldn’t stop the flow of tears. “I thanked God
when Colin inherited the title because I knew you’d be safe.”
“But I couldn’t help you,” said Colin bitterly. He pulled
away from Ava when she tried to comfort him. “I had one duty in life, to protect
my family, and I’ve failed miserably.”
“Hush,” said Ava. And this time when she took his
hand, he didn’t pull away. “There is one and only one person to blame here –
Clarence Pierce. I’m glad the bastard is dead and hope he rots in hell.” Then
after a moment, she added, “I’m normally not so cold-blooded Win. I hope you
don’t think Colin married a shrew.”
Win smiled through her tears. “It is obvious Colin
and James both chose well.”
“Unfortunately, we cannot do anything about the past,”
said Colin. “But the future is a different matter. You will not hang. Not as
long as I have breath in my body. Stemple has connections at the docks from
when he worked as a smuggler. We have to get you out of the country before
anyone is the wiser. We know you’re innocent, love. But that doesn’t guarantee
justice will prevail.”
Win sat up and dried her eyes. “The duke has vouched
for me. I cannot flee. It wouldn’t be honorable.”
Colin shook his head. “Lynwood would probably make
the arrangements to send you to safety himself. He will not allow an innocent
woman to hang. Please say you’ll allow me to set this to rights.”
“I feel strongly about this, Colin.”
Her brother did not look best pleased. But then he
sighed. “We can try this your way for now. But if it doesn’t look like you’ll
prevail, you will be leaving the country.”
Colin edged James out of his seat next to Win. He
took her in his arms and Win was in tears once again.
“We may need some more of Lynwood’s port,” said James,
as he poured glasses for the men.
“One for me as well,” said Rose.
“You’re too young.”
“I’m almost nineteen. And on this occasion we might
as well get good and foxed.”
“Colin, it’s my turn to hug our sister,” said Nick.
“Take the other side of her. Rose can move as she
begins her journey into drunkenness. And, really, I don’t know how she’s
familiar with such terms as ‘good and foxed.’”
“I have brothers, do I not?” asked Rose, as she made
way for Nick.
“Win,” said Ava. “I know this must be terribly
overwhelming, but I was hoping – we were all hoping – that you would move to
Wiltshire with us after this affair has been sorted.”
Win’s heart swelled at the very thought, but there
were other considerations. “That is your home. You’re the countess. Even if
I am acquitted of this charge…”
“You mean when you’re acquitted,” said Nick.
Win wished she had her brother’s confidence in her
future. “All right, when I’m acquitted, I’ll still be a murderess in the eyes
. Pierce cannot harm you from the grave, but I’m afraid just
bringing me into your home could ruin all of you.”
Colin sighed. “To think I might not ever be allowed
to enter the hallowed grounds of Almack’s again, nor sip tepid champagne in an
overcrowded ballroom that smells to high heaven. How ever shall I bear it?
James, you pour like a miser. Fill my glass – do not simply wave the decanter
in front of it.”
“Colin, you and James are already married,” said Win.
“You both can choose to live outside of Society. But Nick has not yet chosen a
“You don’t hear me complaining, do you?” asked Nick.
“And think of Rose and Letty,” said Win. “Not to
mention Anna and the children you all will have. Where will they find
husbands, if you are exiled from the
“A husband did not bring you happiness,” said Rose
“That is true,” said Win, carefully. She knew she
would never marry again. She could never trust a man enough to do so. But she
didn’t want to give Rose a fear of the institution. “Yet I do not condemn all
men because of it. I need only look at my three brothers to restore my faith.
You cannot forsake marriage Rose, just because of my experience.”
“Who said I’m forsaking it?” asked Rose. “Perhaps I’ve
decided to find a husband outside of the London marriage mart.”
“Yes,” said Colin with a snort. “Rose seems to think
she can find a husband closer to home.”
That was odd
thought Win, for the only eligible man near Wiltshire was their childhood
friend Nathaniel Gage, Lord Grayson. Then a flood of memories came back from
their youth: Rose following her older brothers and Grayson around. Their
brothers teasing her, while Grayson had always been so kind. He’d even carried
Rose back to the manor when she’d fallen from a tree. There had never been
anything between them due to the age difference, but that mattered naught now. And
Grayson would be a fool not to fall in love with Rose. Win locked eyes with
her sister, as their brothers drank Lynwood’s port.
It only required a split second and a blush for Win to
see what her brothers could not. Rose was in love with the Marquess of Grayson,
the heir to the Duke of Bancroft. Rose quickly schooled her features, then
turned to adjust a pillow on one of the chairs.
But as Win caught Ava’s eye, then Irene’s, she
realized that both ladies had the same suspicions she did.
Which meant her new sisters were just as intelligent
as she suspected. Ava simply smiled and shrugged. Irene smiled and nodded.
“To bring us back to the matter at hand, what is being
done for your defense?” asked Nick. “I am sure Olson is already in search of a
“Here’s the queer thing,” said James. “He’s finding
it difficult to secure one. The few men he trusts are otherwise engaged. And from
what Olson knows of the Crown’s prosecutor, we’ll need the best there is.”
“But he does not have the truth on his side,” said
Win didn’t want to contradict Rose’s sweet assertion,
but she knew the truth wasn’t always enough.
“We will simply do what we can to secure the best
possible barrister,” said Colin. “Then when this is all over, Win will come
home with us, as will James, Irene and Anna. Nick, you’ll simply have to visit
Nick smiled ruefully. “From what I’ve heard, my dear
cousin Simon will soon try to divest me of the title, along with all its
holdings. You’d better be careful Colin, or I may be moving to Wiltshire, as
Colin was uncharacteristically serious. “You would be
Then Colin, perhaps fearing he’d strayed too far from
his joking persona, continued. “Of course you all will have to put up with the
tyrannical Countess of Ridgeway. But let me state this clearly. Everyone –
everyone – will always have a home at Ridgeway Manor.”
Win couldn’t help but smile. She might hang for a
crime she did not commit. But until then, she would rejoice in the love of her