Authors: Gayle Callen
udrey Blake knew her request was too forward, too impolite—but she no longer cared. She was desperate, and Lord Knightsbridge’s arrival might be her only chance. He sounded pleasant, his voice deep, manly, and obviously he had compassion and a sense of justice to come all this way to offer his assistance.
“I am not an invalid, my lord,” she continued, knowing she rushed her words. She couldn’t hear anyone in the foyer, but they’d be interrupted soon. “And I’m not a fool. I would have servants to assist me, and my lady’s maid, who acts as my eyes when necessary. And I remember what things look like—I went blind from scarlet fever at seven years of age, and I’ve done my best to remind myself every night of the images of my relatives’ faces, the grounds of my home.”
“But you would be going to a place with none of those things, Mrs. Blake,” he said in a gentle voice.
“You are a soldier, sir—did you not wish to explore places you’d never been before? Why would I be different? And the house is
” she added with emphasis, “although my father tried to weave an elaborate deception to convince me the house went to a distant male relative of my husband. I wrote to a lawyer and discovered the truth. I do not want to spend my days as my sister’s companion, to intrude on her marriage as a poor relation. That is what they plan for me, all of my family, when they aren’t trying to keep me hidden.”
She heard the inhalation of his breath, forced herself to remain calm, though she could barely control the trembling of her hands. This was her chance—would the earl deny her, when he obviously felt he owed her?
She knew he heard the footsteps in the hall when he lowered his voice and spoke quickly.
“You make a good argument, Mrs. Blake, and I do understand your frustration. But I don’t know you or your situation, and could be doing more harm than good.”
He must have leaned closer, for she could smell the clean, outdoor scent of him.
“Then stay,” she said. “My brother is having a shooting party with his friends for the next few days. My family would be honored at your presence—especially my sister Blythe,” she added with just a touch of sarcasm. “I will invite you if my father or sister doesn’t. And then you will see the family I have, who believe they know best for me, when I’m a grown, competent woman, and not a drooling invalid.”
“Very well, I will stay,” he said.
“Thank you, my lord.”
The surge of relief Audrey felt was enough to make her teacup rattle in the saucer as she picked it up. She was sipping slowly, casually, when she heard the rush of swirling garments, the prancing steps of Blythe entering the parlor, the heavy footfalls of her father.
With the creak of the padded chair, she knew Lord Knightsbridge had risen to his feet.
“Knightsbridge,” her father said with his overly cheerful tone, “may I present my daughter, Miss Blythe Collins.”
“Miss Collins, it is a pleasure to meet you.”
The earl’s voice was full of the warm admiration men always showed a lovely woman. Even though Audrey had last seen Blythe as a two-year-old, she well remembered her pretty brunette curls and the dimples whenever she smiled. She’d been Audrey’s little doll baby from the moment of her birth and she’d enjoyed caring for her and dressing her under their mother’s loving supervision. Both children had contracted scarlet fever, but only Audrey’s fever had raged so high as to take her sight. And it had altered their relationship ever since. Her father and siblings were ashamed of her infirmity, of her very differentness, as if it were a mark on their family that might be carried to future generations.
While their mother had been alive, she made certain Audrey was treated as any normal child, and the seasons had passed with some moments of harmony. But her mother had died seven years ago. Gradually, Audrey’s visits to the outside world had been restricted, as if she were a ghost who shouldn’t be seen. Blythe had more and more mimicked their father, who tolerated Audrey’s blindness, especially since he could use the few skills he thought she had. But treat her like a normal daughter? No. Only Blythe could regularly visit neighbors or go to London. Audrey’s control of the household freed Blythe to concentrate on finding a husband.
Audrey had never been beyond their village. She had no women friends of her own except dear Molly, her nanny’s daughter. They’d been raised together since infancy, and Molly was now her lady’s maid and secretary all rolled into one cheerful package.
Would things be better if she lived alone in her own home? Would strangers give her the benefit of the doubt, unlike her own family? Audrey didn’t know, but at least she’d be free to do as she wished, go where she wished. That had seemed just a distant, unattainable dream this morning—until the arrival of the Earl of Knightsbridge.
She knew Blythe would have swept into a deep curtsy at meeting a peer of the realm. And by her breathless, “How do you do, my lord?” Audrey assumed his lordship must be an attractive man, and not too old for Blythe’s consideration.
Their father didn’t even bother to tell Blythe the real reason Lord Knightsbridge had visited them, only said, “Knightsbridge is newly returned from India, lately a cavalryman for the Queen.”
“Oh, what an exciting and dangerous life,” Blythe said, her voice full of awe and eagerness.
Didn’t she hear her own desperation? Audrey wondered. She’d once tried to point it out, but Blythe had dismissed her concerns, saying Audrey knew nothing of the flirtation between men and women. But Audrey could hear when someone made a fool of themselves.
“I consider myself honored to serve my country,” Lord Knightsbridge said in a somber voice. “But it is not a life for the faint of heart.” He hesitated. “I inherited the earldom at twenty, but did not have the maturity for the title. The army seemed like the only way to achieve that. And I had an excellent staff who kept the estates running smoothly in my absence.”
Oh, there was a deeper story there, but she would not be so impolite as to ask about it.
“We don’t need to talk about the army,” Blythe said in a too cheerful voice. “I imagine you simply want to forget it.”
“Sometimes, I would like to,” he said quietly.
Audrey felt a chill at the emptiness in his voice.
“But I must honor the memory of the friends I lost,” he continued. “That is why I’m here, to pay my respects to the widow of my fellow soldier, Mr. Blake.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize,” Blythe said faintly.
Audrey could already feel her sister’s mind working, as she imagined that yet another man was connected to Audrey, besides her late husband. And Audrey wanted this new connection. She didn’t want to hurt Blythe, but for once, she had to put herself first.
“Surely you weren’t planning to share tea and then leave,” Lord Collins blustered. “We have several young men arriving for my son’s shooting party. Do stay, Knightsbridge. We have plenty of room.”
On cue, Lord Knightsbridge said, “That is a gracious invitation, sir. I accept. I’ve been away nine years, so it will do me good to reacquaint myself with other young men.”
“Oh, I am so glad, my lord,” Blythe gushed.
“Perhaps you wish to retire and rest before dinner?” Audrey asked.
Sometimes it was good not to be able to see, if her sister was angry to have the earl snatched away from her so soon.
“I imagine I look dusty from the road,” the earl said lightly, then his voice sobered. “Forgive me, Mrs. Blake, of course you cannot see that—”
She put up a hand and interrupted. “My lord, figures of speech are not offensive to me, so do not be concerned. I understand you are probably not used to dealing with the blind.” But she felt rather relieved that he was considerate. After all, she’d just recklessly asked him, a stranger, to take her away from home. Perhaps it was good that they
learned about each other.
But he wasn’t a stranger—he’d been a friend of Martin’s. That didn’t exactly recommend him in her eyes.
“You are very understanding, ma’am.”
“I’ll have a footman escort you to your room.” Audrey rose to her feet. She was always very careful to sit at the end of furniture groups, so she wouldn’t have to stumble over people. At the door, she leaned out to give instructions to the footman.
She could hear the party rise behind her as Lord Knightsbridge thanked her father once again before following her to the entrance hall.
“Rest well, my lord,” Blythe called.
They were all briefly silent as the earl’s footsteps faded away up the stairs. Then Audrey heard her sister excitedly whisper, “Oh, Father! An earl—”
Audrey heard her father rubbing his hands together.
“I know something of Knightsbridge,” he said. “Though he has not taken his place in the House of Lords for these nine years, there is gossip to be had.”
Blythe asked, “What kind of gossip?”
Audrey did not want to be a part of passing along rumors, but she could not pretend disinterest.
“I believe when he became the earl at twenty, he was considered by some to be too arrogant for his own good.”
“And it seems the army cured him of that,” Blythe countered.
“Maturity and experience help, too,” Audrey added.
“There was something about a business investment that failed, and a man involved took his own life. That was when the young earl bought his commission.”
Audrey frowned. “His lordship could be innocent or guilty of . . . anything.”
“No one believes the earl had a hand in this man’s death,” Lord Collins assured them, his voice full of blustery conviction.
“Then it was the investment that people questioned?” Audrey asked warily. Had she just beseeched an unscrupulous man to take her away from her home?
“This doesn’t concern you, Audrey,” her father said.
She’d heard that her whole life.
“But, no, nothing underhanded was discovered, only bad judgment.”
“And he was only twenty,” Blythe said. “Anyone can make foolish mistakes at twenty.”
“You’re twenty,” Audrey couldn’t help pointing out.
“Oooh!” Blythe said with a groan. “You are impossible to speak with!” And she marched out, her slippers making scuffing sounds on the stairs.
Audrey sighed and was about to follow her.
“Audrey, I would like a word.”
She remained still as her father brushed past her to close the door.
“I could confine you to your room,” he said in his
I know best
She clenched her teeth together so hard she felt a spasm in her jaw. Then she calmed herself. She had intrigued Lord Knightsbridge, she knew, and he felt obligated to do something for her. If she were confined to her room, it might make him even more determined to help.
I can’t lose here,
she told herself firmly. But she didn’t want to be confined, to hear other people having fun, to be unable to even sit among them.
“But confining you would cause talk during a shooting party, since Knightsbridge has already met you,” he continued, heaving a sigh. “So I must trust you to be circumspect in your dealings with him. Your sister deserves her chance to shine.”
“Father, the man is an earl,” she insisted. “He will not be interested in a blind woman, except for compassion’s sake. I am no threat to Blythe.”
“See that you remember that,” he warned her. “You didn’t before.”
She could feel him take a step toward her, and much as he’d never physically harmed her, his complete control of her was threatening enough. It was as if the air around her shrank, and she could smell the cologne he used to mask his body odor.
“I warned you about Blake,” he reminded her for the thousandth time.
“And you were right,” she said, trying to sound humble instead of furious. “Believe me, it is a lesson I have not forgotten.”
“Good.” He stepped away. “What do you have planned for dinner tonight, once all the young men have arrived?”
She briefly, impassively sketched out the menu for him, while her mind churned at her helplessness. He would confine his own daughter, but for talk and her usefulness to his guests. It had happened before, when she’d been cloistered alone and miserable but for Molly. Every time she thought herself immune to her family’s subtle humiliations, another rose to wound her again.
“You look tired, too,” he suddenly said. “You should rest before dinner. I don’t want Blythe to have to take over coordinating the meal. She needs to be free to converse and make our guests feel at ease.”
Audrey sighed. “I do feel tired, Father. I’ll spend a quiet hour in my room.”
But once there, she couldn’t truly rest. She let Molly help her out of her gown into a dressing gown over her chemise and petticoats, the better to lie down. Throughout, the maid chatted about the other young men who had arrived, four more of them. Molly was her own age of twenty-five, and Audrey remembered she had dark blond hair and freckles across her nose. Once Audrey had sheepishly asked if Molly still had them, and Molly had only laughed and said they’d since spread across her face. Audrey had then explained that the people she’d last seen as a seven-year-old must now look different, but she had no way to tell. Molly had told her to touch her face and feel the difference. To Audrey’s amazement, she really could “feel” the contours of Molly’s pert nose and apple cheeks and imagine what she must look like. Though grateful for Molly’s thoughtfulness, she knew she could ask no one else, especially her family, for such a personal favor. So she just had to go by what she remembered of them.
Molly’s conversation came to the forefront when the maid said, “I caught a glimpse of his lordship in the hall.”
“What does he look like?” Audrey asked with a bit too much eagerness. Now she was sounding like Blythe.
“Don’t go moving your head while I’m trying to brush your hair, Miss Audrey.”
Audrey had tried for years to have the maid call her by her Christian name, but she refused—although she did agree that “Mrs. Blake” was too formal for their relationship. And it was a true relationship, not mistress and servant. Molly was her dearest friend in the world, closer than her own sister. With no one else could Audrey be herself, ask silly questions, make mistakes. In front of her family, she had to always be at her best, for fear they’d start to treat her as an invalid again. Her mother had put a stop to that, but Audrey never felt safe now that she was gone. She kept waiting for someone to suggest there were hospitals for people like her.