About the book
"And into your arms I go, to lose my mind and find my soul..."
For Miss Ethel Pates, working at her uncle’s apothecary is everything she has ever known. In charge of her healer’s shop, she spends her days mixing herbs and trying to solve a mystery: her own parents' death.
Austin Woodmore, Marquess of Kingshill, lives with one goal: stay true to his familial duty. Determined to find a cure for his ailing father, he follows the trail of a renowned old apothecary. What he finds instead, is his beautiful, spirited niece.
With Austin’s mother waging war against her and the moment of Ethel’s departure drawing closer, Austin must make a choice: serve his family or follow his heart.
A promise made by a stranger reveals that Ethel has been living a terrible lie. And a single slip of the tongue gives her the truth: what truly happened to her parents the night they died…
The crisp, winter wind tore at Ethel’s cape and sent a shiver down her spine. She let out a small puff of air, her breath frosting the space before her. Still, she continued to the riverside. It had recently rained, so the stones and grass were sleek with water. Ethel carefully picked her way across them and to the cluster of mint growing along the banks. She smiled in relief and crouched beside it, the dampness from the ground bleeding through the fabric of her worn, cotton dress.
There! That wasn’t so terrible! Ethel thought.
The fabric of Ethel’s clothes had grown too thin to keep her properly warm any longer, but she still insisted on wearing the garments. Money spent on new dresses was money that could be spent elsewhere, like supporting herself and her dear uncle. Ethel felt a sharp twist in her belly. Uncle William had been too ill even to rise from bed when Ethel left for the morning. Hopefully, he’d at least eat the soup and take the medicine that Ethel had left. The poor man had weakened so much, though, and Ethel wondered, not for the first time, if his ailment was something that couldn’t be cured with her herbal remedies.
If my poor uncle William lived in London, he might be able to procure the services of a proper physician, and surely, with all their learning and skills, they would be able to help Uncle William. Certainly, they’d be able to do more than I can.
But it would not do to think like that. Ethel could never afford a physician out of London. She was the best her uncle could hope for, so she had to be good enough.
Ethel grasped the root of a tall, oak tree and cautiously brought her foot down upon a stone in the quickly rushing current. Taking a deep breath, Ethel adjusted the basket on her arm. She carefully released the tree root and plucked a few stems of the precious mint. Ethel deposited the herbs into her basket, and after placing the basket back onto the bank, she carefully climbed away from the river’s edge.
“Oh, Emma,” Ethel muttered, “The things I do for you.”
Emma was the daughter of the village’s baker and Ethel’s best friend. She’d come into the shop the day before and complained about a stomachache, and while that alone would have been enough for Ethel to venture out and gather the much-needed mint growing at the water’s edge, Ethel knew, too, that Emma would likely return the favor by bringing Ethel a bit of flour or a small loaf of bread.
Ethel paused by the banks, looking over the offering of herbs. She already had the rosemary for Mrs. Rhodes, the mayor’s wife, and the lavender for Miss Smith, the spinster who lived on the edge of the village. Ethel took a few sprigs of thyme and continued to the shop.
This should be everything, Ethel thought, all the usual requests.
She hummed to herself as she entered. After setting the basket on her small table, Ethel swept her cape from her shoulders and draped it over a chair. She continued to the fire and sighed as the flames warmed her numb fingers. As she set the herbs out to dry, Ethel thought of all the work she still had to complete. There were her regular customers, who frequented her shop, and with the cooler winter weather, there were likely to be more colds and ailments.
She then went about the shelves where she stored her herbs. Ethel had already determined which ones were in need of replenishment, but she often checked more than once. It was far better to be thorough than make a mistake, after all.
The shop door opened, thudding against the wall behind it. Ethel jumped at the sudden noise and whirled around. Her throat grew dry as a man entered. As he stood in the doorway, weak beams of sunlight caught in his dark-blond hair and cast a halo around his head. The man was tall and broad-shouldered, attributes emphasized by the well-tailored great coat he wore. The garment was dark blue with silver buttons and embroidered floral patterns along the hem. Ethel stared openly. No one in the provincial Bridgeworth would ever dress so nicely. The man’s sharp green eyes swept over the shop before landing on Ethel herself.
Just who are you? Ethel wondered.
As the man stepped closer, Ethel felt the power that radiated from him. A nobleman, she realized. Ethel struggled to remember the names of the lords who lived nearby. There weren’t many.
A duke, Ethel recalled. The Duke of Dawntonshire had a country estate that was only a half-day’s ride away. The duke was old, though, and this man was not. He couldn’t have been older than thirty.
The man halted before her, and in a flood of embarrassment and heat, Ethel realized she was staring. She swept into an unpracticed curtsy, made clumsier by an unwelcome wave of self-consciousness. Ethel didn’t look like anyone who ought to be meeting a nobleman, especially one as handsome and decadently dressed as this one. Ethel’s blue dress was worn and plain, and bits of herbs and dirt had gathered beneath her nails. And although she’d removed her cape, Ethel had left the garment, heavily stained and patched repeatedly, in a nearby chair, so it would be visible to the visiting lord. Ethel felt uncomfortably like a little girl who’d neglected to properly wash herself before dinner. “Good morning, my Lord,” she said. “Welcome to my shop.”
Hopefully, that title would be sufficient for his rank. Ethel was fairly certain this man wasn’t the duke, which would have entitled him to be addressed as Your Grace instead. And surely, this stranger wasn’t the Prince Regent.
“Good morning. I wish to speak with your husband,” the nobleman said, “Immediately.”
“I have no husband,” Ethel replied.
It was certainly presumptuous of him to assume she did.
“Then, I’d like to speak to the apothecary. Your master. It’s an urgent matter,” the man said. He spoke with the air of a man who was accustomed to being obeyed.
Urgent? Ethel furrowed her brow. Surely, a man of his birth would have gone to a physician in London, rather than a country apothecary, if the matter had been truly urgent. Perhaps, Ethel reflected, the nobleman desired discretion. Maybe he’d deflowered a country maid and needed a contraceptive for her. Such things were not unheard of, although it was usually women who requested such things from her.
“You are speaking to the apothecary,” Ethel replied.
The man’s eyes swept over her. “You?” he asked. “You’re the apothecary?”
Ethel bristled at the disbelief present in the man’s voice. She hadn’t spent her entire life learning about herbs and medicines to have a haughty nobleman act as he was. This man probably couldn’t even discern the difference between water hemlock and wild carrot. “I am,” she replied, trying to match the imperiousness in his tone, “And a very capable one, My Lord.”
“That remark doesn’t inspire confidence. Most capable apothecaries don’t feel the need to announce how capable they are,” he replied. “In my experience, the more a man—or, in your case, woman—needs to brag about his skills, the less skills he actually has.”
Ethel tipped her chin up and rolled her shoulders back. The man was so tall that, even with her back straight, she barely reached his chest. He took a step closer, as if deliberately trying to make her feel small. “Have you come to my shop merely to insult me, my Lord? I’ve never met someone with such apparent doubt in my skills before. No one in Bridgeworth has ever spoken so offensively to me, but perhaps, they do not teach manners where you hail from.”
The lord’s lips quirked into a small, roguish smirk. “You think I’ve insulted you? I can’t fathom from where you’d get such an idea.”
Ethel bit the inside of her cheek. It seemed as though the lord enjoyed this, as though he was entertained. There were many things, most of them unkind, that she would have liked to say, but she knew that a man of this stature had to be treated with a certain level of decorum and respect. With a steadying breath, Ethel forced a cheerful smile. “You’ve come into my shop without even introducing yourself, and without knowing even my name, you’ve insulted my skills as an apothecary. But I’ll forgive your ignorance, my Lord. I can’t expect you to spend such time in my humble village. You seem like a man who only concerns himself with the affairs of the city.”
The lord had the audacity to laugh. “And I can see you’ve little experience with how to speak to your social betters. That’s to be expected, of course. I don’t imagine you frequently leave your quaint, little village. I am Austin Woodmore, the Marquess of Kingshill. My father and mother are the Duke and Duchess of Dawntonshire.”
Ethel schooled her features into a mask of politeness. “I should think, my Lord,” she said, “That it is easier for a man of your stature to leave your grand estate than it is for me to leave my humble home.”
“Is there not a carriage you could borrow to suit your needs?” the marquess asked.
Ethel flinched, but just barely. She hadn’t set foot in a carriage, not that she remembered. Perhaps, she had once, before her parents died, but after that, even the thought of being near a carriage made her stomach twist and lurch. If the man noticed her discomfort, he had enough grace not to mention it.
“Unlike yourself,” Ethel said finally, “I do not have the money to borrow a carriage, even for a short ride. I would assume you, however, likely have a legion of carriages at your disposal, my Lord.”
“Aren’t you a sharp-tongued young lady? It’s poor form to criticize the behavior of a nobleman,” the marquess replied, his eyes sparkling.
“And it’s equally poor form to linger in my shop without any interest in buying anything,” Ethel said, her temper flaring. “I’m certain that you can stand here and argue with me until nightfall if it suits your fancy. But with all due respect, my Lord, I’ve much business to attend to.”
It was true that she had other business to attend to, but the remark still had probably been too bold of her.
“Do you?” he asked, looking around with an expression of mock-surprise. “I find that difficult to believe, as I appear to be your only customer, Miss…? Oh, I do apologize. Either I’ve forgotten your name, or you have neglected to introduce yourself, something which—if I recall correctly—you chastised me for.”
“Pates,” she said. “Ethel Pates. And although you don’t see any other customers, my Lord, I can assure you I have them. It is only that some of them are unable to travel to me and that some remedies take a long time to prepare.”
The man reached into the pocket of his great coat and drew out a piece of paper. When Ethel took it, her fingers brushed his, clad in soft leather gloves. She swallowed hard and unfolded the paper, her eyes reading over the list of ingredients. It wasn’t an abortifacient like she’d thought. No, this was a medicine, similar to one of Ethel’s own recipes. Someone was very ill.
Ethel glanced at the marquess and found his green eyes fixed firmly upon her, seeming to judge her. The man’s color was fine, his cheeks red, and his complexion fine. And his voice was smooth and light, not the least bit scratchy or thick. He looked well, far too well to be requesting this sort of medicine for himself.
“Since you are quite the capable apothecary,” the lord said mockingly, “I would assume you’ve the required skills to mix this remedy for me.”
“Only…” she trailed off.
“Only?” he asked, arching an eyebrow. “If this is beyond your skills, I bid you tell me and quickly. I’m certain I can find an apothecary elsewhere. While you may believe I’ve nothing better to do than quarrel all day with you, I do, indeed, have many affairs that require my attention.”
He could find another apothecary, but he’d have to ride all the way to London for that. There certainly weren’t any closer. If there were, Ethel would have known. She furrowed her brow. This man’s personal life wasn’t her business, but it did seem odd that this high-born man would have gone to her rather than one of the bigger apothecaries or a physician in London. There were educated physicians there, men who had studied at the great colleges. So perhaps, it really was urgent. Perhaps, the lord did usually go to London and his usual apothecary or physician had been delayed for some reason or other.
“This is a very strong remedy, my Lord,” Ethel said at last. “Have you used it before?”
His gaze was intense, radiating the sort of power and authority that only came from being born into privilege and wealth. Ethel felt as though those eyes could see down into her very soul and pick apart any deception. “I have used this remedy countless times before,” he replied. “Why? Is there some reason why I ought not to use it?”
“That depends, my Lord. I ask only because this remedy is so strong. And I fear it has some undesirable side effects that could be easily remedied.”
“What sort of side effects?”
“Muscle fatigue. Nausea. Perhaps, dizziness. In theory, these ingredients are fine, but the amount of a particular herb is as important, if not more, than the type of herb that is being used. My Lord,” she added hastily.
Something small and indiscernible seemed to change about the man’s posture. He looked suddenly more serious and less teasing. “And how would you lessen these undesirable effects?” he asked.
“I would change the proportions of some of the ingredients,” Ethel said, “And perhaps, alter some others. Most medicines have some ill effects, unfortunately, but these do seem excessive by my calculations.”
“Do you believe that you know more about medicines than this apothecary?” the man asked. “This London apothecary, who has dutifully served my family for years now?”
Ethel’s gaze never faltered. Had the lord come with something less serious, Ethel might have let the matter rest, but this looked like a serious illness. This was something that really mattered.
“I think I do,” Ethel said. “No, I know I do, my Lord. Your present apothecary is serviceable, but in my years of experience, I think I’ve learned a better way to make this particular remedy.”
“You don’t look old enough to have many years,” he replied, his tone serious. “Perhaps, you’re simply ill-informed.”
Blood rushed to Ethel’s face, so her cheeks glowed as red as holly berries. “I’ve learned about herbs since I was a little girl,” Ethel said, “And I’ve spent my entire life watching my uncle work with them. He was the greatest apothecary this village ever had, and when he became ill, he entrusted his shop to me. I’ve run it since I was eighteen. And I will put my knowledge of herbs and medicines against any of your London apothecaries.”
A new expression crossed the man’s face, something deep and thoughtful, but it was gone in an instant. The relaxed smirk returned. “Then, I’ll leave you to it,” he said. “I assume—since you’re so confident—that this won’t take very long at all?”
Ethel forced a brilliant smile. “Of course not, my Lord. It’ll just take me a moment.”
She turned to the back of the shop, silently bristling. What a rude and presumptive man! It was utterly unfair that such an infuriating creature could be so terribly handsome. Not that it mattered much. Ethel had seen handsome men before, and she was a woman of restraint, who’d never be charmed by beauty alone.
Ethel skimmed the list again, although she already knew what ingredients were required and in what amounts. Whoever was taking this remedy must be very ill, indeed. But if it wasn’t Austin, the Marquess of Kingshill, that needed this remedy, who was it?
Austin Woodmore, the Marquess of Kingshill, watched Miss Pates’ back as she disappeared behind a dull-colored curtain. Despite her final, brilliant smile, the woman’s annoyance was apparent in the rigid set of her back and shoulders. A heavy mane of glossy, dark-brown curls bounced with her every step.
A proper woman would have her hair pulled back, Austin thought. Although I suppose etiquette is less strict in a place like this.
She was a pretty creature. No, far more than that. In his youth, Austin had traveled to the salons of Paris and enjoyed the company of many budding artists, who knew no shortage of beautiful ladies. And more recently, Austin had seen the shopgirls in London, their luminous eyes and their slender silhouettes. But all those women paled in comparison to this one.
Miss Pates had an untamed, natural beauty about her. It was as if she, herself, had been born from the wild, from the same place as the herbs she surrounded herself with. Her eyes were warm brown, like polished rosewood, and surrounded by thick, dark lashes that stood in defiant contrast with her pale skin. Freckles spread across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose like tiny bursts of stars, and it seemed as though Miss Pates made no efforts to conceal them, unlike the blue-blooded women Austin knew.
Austin remained silent, despite the temptation to follow the woman into the back of her shop. That action seemed as though it would be crossing a boundary, though. Irritating a woman was one thing; invading her space without an invitation was another. And despite his amusement at seeing Miss Pates flustered and fierce, trying to hide the depth of her irritation with him, Austin was a well-bred and well-mannered man. He would never want a woman to feel threatened or uneasy about him.
Especially not the woman who was fixing the medicine for his father. Austin let out a small breath and let himself slouch just slightly. His father, Roderick Woodmore, the Duke of Dawntonshire, had taken ill several months before, so Austin had returned from London to tend to his ailing father. But the man didn’t seem to be getting better. Nor worse, really. Instead, the duke spent his days in bed, fatigued and coughing, only occasionally emerging to eat with his family.
Austin’s father had complained of feeling nauseous, too, and never had Austin, who didn’t know anything about herbs or medicines, considered that, perhaps, the London apothecary’s remedy might be the cause. What if it was, though? What if Miss Pates truly did know more than Austin’s usual apothecary?
Obviously, he’d have to keep visiting Miss Pates. The thought brought a smirk to his face.
The curtain swayed, and Austin straightened his back. Miss Pates came in again, a small container in hand. “This should be what you need,” she said, in a no-nonsense tone.
Perhaps, the apothecary had collected herself while she’d mixed the remedy. Her smile seemed more relaxed.
“How often is this particular remedy being taken, my Lord?” she asked.
“Three times a day,” Austin replied, “sometimes, four.”
“No,” Austin replied, “by my father.”
Recognition seemed to flash across Miss Pates’ eyes. “I see,” she replied. “Is His Grace a heavy-set man?”
Austin arched an eyebrow. “That’s a rather inappropriate question from a country apothecary. He’s a good, strong man.”
Miss Pates’ lips twitched downwards in annoyance before springing firmly back into a tight smile. “No,” she replied. “If you’d visited many apothecaries, you’d realize how appropriate the question is. If His Grace is your height and breadth, my Lord, he ought to take this remedy at a quarter of the dose you’ve written on this paper.”
Austin hadn’t even considered that the weight of a man might have anything to do with how much medicine he ought to take. “I was only teasing you,” he said, rather than admitting the truth. “My father is smaller now. He’s lost a good deal of weight since falling ill.”
Miss Pates nodded. “Then, you should really give him smaller doses. Too much medicine can be as harmful as not enough, my Lord. And if His Grace has also lost his appetite, you might consider mixing this remedy in a tea—perhaps, chamomile or mint—with a spoonful of honey. Even if he will eat little, it is important to ensure that His Grace is still drinking, if only a little. The chamomile and mint will help settle his belly, while the honey will work to soothe his throat and muscles.”
The London apothecary and the physician had advised similarly, although neither man had explained the reasons as concisely as Miss Pates had. “You speak with the confidence of a well-educated physician,” Austin said.
A flush came to Miss Pates’ face. “Hardly that,” she muttered. “I’m quite skilled in my craft, but I’m still an apothecary.”
She offered the small container to him. It was made of scratched and fogged over glass. Clearly, this container had been used several times prior. It was quite different from the pristine bottles that Austin usually received, but Miss Pates seemed to be a master of her trade, despite how baffling it was to find a woman in a profession like hers. Austin took the container along with the paper he’d given Miss Pates upon his arrival.
He noted that the young woman’s fingers had several tiny cuts on them, likely from briars or something similar. Perhaps, she’d stuck herself on the small cluster of blood-red roses growing outside her shop. Black dirt was caked beneath her chipped nails and torn cuticles, but there was something in those hands that was beautiful, if rough. Something real about them. Miss Pates hadn’t made herself pretty or cleaned herself more to appeal or please him, and that was refreshing.
She’s different, Austin mused. She’s beautiful and fiery.
Or maybe it was merely that Miss Pates herself seemed so proud of her skills with herbs. Perhaps, the beauty was found in the confidence she presented, the fire she showed. Austin thought of the beauties he knew, so proper and lovely. He would never see a fine lady with hands like Miss Pates.
“What is the price?” Austin asked.
She named a price significantly lower than any Austin had ever paid the London apothecary. Austin drew out the desired coins, adding an extra shilling. When his fingers brushed Miss Pates’ hand, Austin wished he’d thought to remove his gloves, so he could feel the warmth of her skin against his.
“This is too much,” Miss Pates said.
“It’s a small matter,” Austin replied. “I would imagine you to be grateful for the extra shilling. I cannot imagine that you earn much working in a village like Bridgeworth.”
Miss Pates’ shoulders stiffened, and her lips curled the tiniest bit inwards. “I do not need your charity, my Lord,” she said.
“Pride goeth before the fall, Miss Pates,” Austin quoted. “You ought to mind the wisdom of Saint Paul before you encounter some misfortune.”
“I would mind the wisdom of Saint Paul,” Miss Pates replied, “But you’ve just repeated the words of King Solomon to me. Perhaps, you’d do better to take your own advice, my Lord.”
“You’re a haughty spirit, nonetheless,” Austin replied, cheerfully ignoring that—he suspected—Miss Pates was entirely correct. Austin had neglected his Scripture more than he probably ought to have, and he’d never been the most studious of men.
Miss Pates only smiled. Austin sensed that he’d stretched the woman’s patience nearly to its breaking point.
“I assume this price is sufficient, assuming that your skills are as good as you’ve led me to believe,” Austin said. “I have my doubts. If you were a better apothecary, you’d surely charge a higher rate.”
Miss Pates turned away, her back straight, and placed the shillings on a small table. When she looked back at Austin, she wrinkled the bridge of her nose. “If you’ve everything you need, my Lord,” Miss Pates said, “I bid you a fond farewell. I’ve other customers to attend to. They cannot pay as well as you, my Lord, but they’re important to me, nevertheless.”
She said fond like it was an unfathomably foul word, to which Austin grinned. “You ought to escort me out, then,” he replied.
Miss Pates retrieved her cape from where she’d draped it over the chair. Austin’s eyes darted over the garment, taking stock of every patch, stain, and tear in the fabric. That poor garment did not look as though it had ever been fashionable or new, and the fabric seemed so sad that Austin suspected it also did a poor job of keeping the young woman dry. In hindsight, he should have offered her a florin or half a crown. Perhaps, she could have purchased a new cloak, although Austin suspected a woman like her always thought of herself last. As Miss Pates draped the cape over her shoulders, Austin thought about how the woman would look if she’d worn satin or silk rather than the aged cotton. She was already a beauty, but fine clothes always enhanced one’s best assets.
“This way, my Lord,” Miss Pates said, dropping into a dismal curtsy.
Perhaps, Miss Pates wasn’t just an exceptionally bold woman. Maybe she just didn’t have the faintest notion how to behave around a man of good breeding. She was a puzzle, Austin decided. A very beautiful and amusing puzzle.
When Austin opened the door, adding an extravagant bow, he inhaled the sharp scent of wet grass and coming rain. There was a river by Miss Pates’ shop, so near that Austin heard the soft roar of water bubbling over polished stones. Did the river ever flood? Austin imagined Miss Pates, all alone and trying to protect her herbs from the flood waters, and he felt a sharp twist of sympathy. There was once a terrible flood on his family’s property, and Austin remembered the people arriving in droves to his father’s estate, begging for aid.
And bless his father! The Duke of Dawntonshire had been swift with his help and unrivaled in his generosity. For as long as Austin could remember, his father had been a champion to the common people.
“There is your carriage, my Lord,” Miss Pates said.
The apothecary swept a hand in the direction of the black, gold-trimmed carriage. Austin’s coachman waited obediently, awaiting the marquess’ command.
“So it is,” Austin replied good-naturedly. “As I mentioned, you ought to procure one yourself. Perhaps, you could use it to travel to London and learn how to respect your betters.”
“And will you tend to my humble shop while I’m away, my Lord?” Miss Pates asked.
Austin rubbed his chin and pretended to give the matter serious thought. It seemed that Miss Pates always remembered his title, despite her determination to disrespect him in every other way. “I suppose I could be persuaded to manage the shop for you,” Austin said. “It’s just managing plants all day, isn’t it? I don’t imagine that’s too difficult of a task.”
“It’s significantly more difficult than you’re thinking, my Lord,” Miss Pates replied, her brown eyes bright and defiant. “It is not merely herbs but also knowing their purposes and how to mix them into poultices and remedies.”
“I would assume such information is easily obtainable. I can follow instructions readily enough.”
Miss Pates’ lips parted, showing her teeth. “Most herbal knowledge is not written down, my Lord. All I know was passed from my uncle to me. The mixtures are etched into my memory rather than on paper, and while I’m sure you’re quite an effective lord, I shudder to imagine you as an apothecary.”
Austin turned towards the water, drifting to the riverbank. He heard a faint sigh behind him, followed by nearly silent footfalls as Miss Pates accompanied him along the river’s edge. Moss and grass, greener than the finest emeralds, tumbled over the edge of the round, brown stones and into the crystal-clear water and frothy foam.
“The water must be convenient for the plants,” Austin said, standing and gazing into the river.
He really ought to leave, but he still lingered, unable to resist overstaying his welcome for just a few more seconds. The driver and the coachman would wait for him, and it was not as if his father was entirely out of medicine. It was only that the man had taken more than usual, and Austin would rather have extra on hand than risk not having enough. So Austin could spare a bit of time, especially if it meant teasing this lovely woman for a little longer.
“It is, my Lord,” Miss Pates said, glancing to the river, “And some plants grow only by the riverside.”
“And do you carry water up here?” he asked, jerking his head towards the shop.
“Sometimes,” Miss Pates replied, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Why?”
Austin shrugged, knowing that his non-answer would likely irk her. He continued along the river with Miss Pates as his companion. Her smile never faded, but also never softened. After walking a few paces, Austin returned once more to the shop.
“Why did you ask if I carried the water up here?” Miss Pates asked. “My Lord?”
“I was only thinking of your roses,” Austin said, nodding to the vibrant flowers. Beside them, there was a host of green and growing things that he had no names for. “They’re lovely. I think they might be the second most beautiful thing outside of your humble shop.”
“I would assume you’re the first, my Lord?” Miss Pates asked, her voice light but her smile strained.
What a spitfire! He could definitely do with seeing more of this enchanting creature. For a woman untrained in courtly behavior, Miss Pates was quite a quick-witted young lady.
“Nonsense,” Austin replied. “I was referring to you, Miss Pates.”
Color rose to Miss Pates’ cheeks until her milky white skin resembled the very flowers she’d been compared to. Whether the reaction was from pleasure, embarrassment, or annoyance was difficult to say, but Austin still felt within him a spark of satisfaction for having inspired it. He wondered if other men made her blush like that, or if he, alone, had that effect on her.
“You’re a dreadful flatterer,” Miss Pates replied. “Perhaps, you ought to save your comments for the ladies of the ton. I’m certain they would be far more taken with your compliments than I am.”
Austin smiled cavalierly. His coachman George cast him an inquiring look. “Have a very good day, Miss Pates,” he said.
“And you as well, my Lord,” Miss Pates replied. “I hope you have a safe journey home. It seems as though there is rain on the way.”
Austin stepped closer to the carriage, and George smartly opened the door. “You need not hope for that. My driver is very experienced,” Austin said, looking over his shoulder at Miss Pates. “I’ll be quite safe.”
“Accidents still occur, my Lord,” Miss Pates said, “Despite how skilled your driver may be.”
Austin smirked. “Just so. I’ll leave you with this, Miss Pates, since you are so busy: you may be as lovely as the roses, but I hope you won’t continue to be as thorny as they are.”
That was a lie, but it sounded witty to Austin’s ears. He was rewarded with a defiant glare and an even tighter smile. Before Miss Pates could properly respond, Austin stepped into his carriage and settled into his seat. Still, he couldn’t resist peeking from behind the curtains and out the window to see if Miss Pates stood there, still. She did, her hands clasped before her. Curls of dark hair caught in the breeze and swept over her shoulders, so she resembled something from a fairy tale. Like a beautiful maiden waiting for her brave knight to return to her.
There was only one thing wrong with the image, and it was such a wrongness that Austin leaned closer to the window. For an instant, he had a wild and wayward thought of asking his driver to halt, but when the carriage jolted forward, Austin remained in his seat. Still, he couldn’t erase the image of Miss Pates’s haunting brown eyes or the way that, as he’d rode away, her pale, pretty face pinched in something like distress.
If Ethel had known that the next two days would bring nothing but rain, she might have appreciated the brief respite of clouded-over sunshine a little more. She glanced outside at the dark and bloated clouds. It seemed like the rain had lessened a minute amount from when she’d checked it last, but it still wasn’t weather that she had any real desire of venturing forth in.
Ethel tore her gaze from the window and went to her uncle’s side. He lay in bed, buried beneath a thick cocoon of blankets, and Ethel knew that if she peeled away those layers of fabric, she’d find her uncle still shivering. The man had been very handsome once, dashing even. At least, he had if Ethel remembered correctly. That had been so long ago, though, before he caught this sickness that never seemed to fade. It had been so dreadful at first that they’d thought it might be consumption, but as the symptoms changed and drew on, it became clear that something else entirely plagued the man.
And whatever ailment it was, it had torn away the young and vibrant uncle Ethel remembered. His thick, dark hair thinned and whitened at an alarming rate, and his skin seemed to shrink around his bones. Even his facial hair seemed to shrink and wilt, as if the man lacked the energy even to grow it. Ethel’s poor uncle was so frail that he looked, most days, as if a good gust of wind across the moors would be enough to send him flying away. Only his eyes were the same, a fierce and winter-cold blue.
“I’m here, Uncle,” Ethel said.
And she always would be. Uncle William was the closest thing Ethel had to a father. He was the only family she had left.
“I think you ought to stay inside today,” William said. “The rain sounds dreadful, and I shudder to think what illness might befall you if you venture out into it.”
It was a fair warning. Ethel had seen her share of young girls who’d developed fevers from being in the rain and the cold for too long, but if Ethel didn’t go to the shop, no one would.
“I must open the shop,” Ethel said. “Someone might need me.”
Her uncle curled his thin hand around hers and rubbed his thumb over the back of Ethel’s hand. “In this weather? That’s unlikely.”
Ethel bent low and kissed her uncle’s hand. Although her uncle had never voiced such thoughts, Ethel knew that he feared losing her as much as she feared losing him. And if Uncle William died, Ethel would be heartbroken, but she would survive. If she died, though…
“If someone is willing to venture forth in this weather, that means they have great need of me,” Ethel replied, “so that’s even more the reason to go.”
Uncle William sighed. “Sometimes,” he said, “I feel as though I’ve raised a wild horse rather than a girl.”
Ethel’s lips quirked into a smile. “And whose fault is that? I’m only what you raised me to be, Uncle.”
William laughed, the sound rattling around in his thin chest. “I gave you my sharp tongue with my trade!” he exclaimed, sounding proud. “Well, I know it’s pointless to argue with you. Is negotiation likewise a futile endeavor?”
Ethel caressed her uncle’s knuckles, scarred and darkened from years spent digging into the earth and mixing remedies. Those hands must have saved so many lives over the years. Suddenly, Ethel felt a dull and heavy weight settle on her shoulders. She felt as though her uncle cast a shadow over her, and she’d consider herself fortunate if she accomplished even a fraction as much as he had.
“I don’t know,” Ethel said, “But I must go. Someone might need me, and even if no one does, I’ll need to see if the shop is in danger of being flooded.”
If it was, Ethel would need to save as much as she could from the flood waters. The shop was her livelihood and her uncle’s livelihood, and if anything happened to it, Ethel knew she and William would not survive long. Sure, they could likely manage with help from their fellow villagers, but no one in the village was wealthy. They always survived, but few villagers would be capable of supporting two additional people, particularly when one of them was unable to work.
“But you won’t stay the entire day,” her uncle argued. “You’ll go and see that everything is in order, and you might work for a few hours. Then, promise me you’ll come home. I don’t like the thought of you venturing home after sunset, not with weather like this.”
Uncle William wasn’t even fond of Ethel traveling anywhere after sunset, but Ethel decided against pushing the matter. “I will,” she said, squeezing his hand. “I promise.”
He smiled weakly. “At least, wear my coat with your cape,” he said. “You’ll be warmer like that.”
“Thank you,” Ethel said, giving her uncle’s hand a final squeeze before slipping away.
As Ethel put on her cape and her uncle’s dark coat over it, she felt a bit like a little girl playing in an adult’s clothes. The sleeves of William’s coat fell far past the tips of her fingers, and the hem slapped against her ankles. She covered her hair with her shawl, although she knew the rain would make quick work of the fabric. “How do I look?” Ethel asked, spinning around.
“Like one of the fine ladies of London,” William replied. “A fashionable countess, at least.”
Ethel grinned and gave her uncle another curtsy, her mind flitting briefly to the arrogant marquess she’d met. Lord Woodmore was gone just as quickly as he’d come, though. There was no use lingering on him, for Ethel knew he’d never appear in her shop again.
“I’ll see you soon!” Ethel exclaimed cheerfully.
Then, she opened the door and greeted the pounding rain. She trudged through the muddied ground, her feet quickly becoming soaked through her shoes and her stockings. Ethel blinked back rainwater from her eyes and wrapped her arms around herself. She kept her head lowered as she trudged to the shop, a black shape that seemed to be an entire continent away.
The riverbanks were unable to contain the waters, which splashed and leaped over the rocks and the grass. For now, the shop was safe, but if the rains continued as they were, Ethel wasn’t sure it would remain safe. She shivered and discarded her drenched shawl on the chair, her uncle’s coat over the table, and her cape beside it. After a second’s thought, Ethel removed her shoes, too. Having removed most of her sodden clothing, she realized that the dress beneath all the layers was mostly dry. Still, her damp fingers trembled as she set about building the fire in the small fireplace. Her cold hands made her efforts clumsy, and it took longer than usual to coax the wood to burn. After she managed it, Ethel remained crouched before the fire, her fingers wiggling and outstretched.
As warmth returned to her limbs, Ethel ran her fingers through her hair, parting the damp curls. Her shawl had failed her, as she’d suspected it would. “Well,” Ethel said, “At least, the shop is safe. For now.”
Still, Ethel began at one corner, moving and arranging all the herbs to the higher shelves. In her experience, the river had never flooded more than a few feet. Simply moving most of her precious ingredients would likely be enough to protect them, but it still would not do any real harm if she took a few of the more valuable herbs back to the house with her.
The door creaked open, and Ethel, who’d stretched out to reach the highest shelf, froze. A familiar face peeked around the edge of the door. “Emma!” Ethel exclaimed. “I hadn’t thought you’d be out in such terrible weather!”
Emma smiled and placed a cloth-wrapped bundle on the table. Then, she removed her shawl, but like Ethel’s, the garment hadn’t kept her hair entirely dry. Instead, Emma’s brilliant, blonde curls were limp and clung to her soft, round face. Her blue eyes shined. “Well,” she said, “I assumed you would venture out, so I thought I would keep you company.”
“How are you feeling?” Ethel asked.
“Superb!” Emma replied. “Thanks to your great remedies, no doubt.”
Ethel smiled and turned away from her herbs, wiping her hands on her dress. “I had an excellent instructor,” Ethel replied.
Emma unwrapped the bundle. Ethel’s belly rumbled as the scent of fresh bread wafted into the room, mixing with the smell of herbs and the earth. “And I know,” Emma said, “You’ll refuse to eat this unless I assure you that I’ve already taken your uncle a loaf of freshly baked bread. And I’ll have my father give me another one for you once the rain has ceased.”
Ethel bit her lip as Emma offered her a chunk of the bread. “If you really gave my uncle one already…” Ethel trailed off.
“I did,” Emma replied, “so eat.”
Ethel took the bread and perched on the edge of the table, leaving Emma the chair, which was closer to the fire. “Thank you,” Ethel said, picking apart bits of the bread with her fingertips before eating them.
“You are welcome!” Emma said, around a mouth that was half-stuffed with bread.
For a few moments, the two of them ate in silence. Emma finished first and strode around the shop, gazing at the carefully organized shelves.
“How is your family?” Ethel asked. “Are any of them having stomachaches?”
“No, they’re fine,” Emma replied. “Thankfully. You know my father; he would not flinch if he cut his hand off, but at the first sign of a cough, he moans as if he’s a hairsbreadth from death!”
“I don’t think your father is the only man who behaves in such a manner,” Ethel replied.
“No,” Emma said, her voice thoughtful, “But I’ve yet to meet a woman who exhibited such behavior.”
“I can assure you they exist,” Ethel said.
“Well, I’m sure you would know far better than I would how people behave when they’re ill.” Emma paused, her pink lips curling in. “How is Mr. Pates?”
Ethel sighed and allowed herself the luxury of slumping her shoulders. She looked like a wilting flower or one over-saturated and made too heavy by water. “Much the same,” Ethel replied.
“Oh. I’m sorry,” Emma said, “But that’s…good, isn’t it? I feared with the cold that his illness might worsen.”
“As did I,” Ethel replied.
“He’s fortunate to have you.”
“I’m fortunate to have him,” Ethel said. “He’s a good man and the best uncle anyone could have. He didn’t want me to come to the shop today, in this weather, and he made me promise to return early.”
“Are you finished here, then?” Emma asked.
Ethel thought for a few seconds. “I need to take some of the herbs with me, just in case the shop floods. Some of them I won’t be able to replenish until late spring. Some are rare or expensive. And I need to mix a concoction for Mrs. Dalloway.”
“Mrs. Dalloway?” Emma asked. “Is she having difficulty with the baby?”
Ethel shook her head. “No, but she fears she might. She asked me to mix her a preventative, something to ward away potential illnesses.”
Emma nodded. “That’s good of you,” she said. “Perhaps, that will set her mind at ease.”
“I doubt it,” Ethel said. “I think most women are nervous about their firstborns, and Mrs. Dalloway has always been…”
“Anxious?” Emma offered.
“Yes. Although I imagine I’d be just as nervous in her position,” Ethel said.
“Someday, we’ll see,” Emma said mischievously.
Ethel smiled wryly. “I think I might devote myself to a single life. I’ll become a spinster and tend to my uncle.”
“You couldn’t be married and tend to your uncle? You couldn’t have children and tend to your uncle?”
“I suppose I could be,” Ethel admitted, “But I haven’t entertained my marriage prospects like I should have. And I haven’t the faintest idea how to instigate a proper courtship. My uncle really doesn’t either.”
Emma seemed to grow from where she sat. Her smile grew devious. “Well, I can think of one person—”
“Says the unmarried woman,” Ethel teased. “Truly, you’re a fountain of wisdom concerning the matter of marriage and how I best ought to pursue it.”
“I’m waiting for a proper match,” Emma replied dismissively. “That’s quite different from being unable to find a husband.”
“You deserve the best,” Ethel said.
“So do you.”
Ethel smiled and stood. “Thank you for the bread,” she said. “I’ll need to mix Mrs. Dalloway’s remedy. Would you like anything?”
Emma pursed her lips together. “You do make the most excellent mint tea blends,” she said. “I’ll watch the front for you, if you’ll do it.”
Fortunately, Ethel had the foresight to pick extra mint leaves the day before. “Very well,” Ethel said. “I’ll be as quick as I can be.”
Ethel ducked into the back of the shop, a space which was significantly more cluttered and disorganized than the polished storefront. She moved around the room with practiced ease, plucking a spring of thyme from one shelf and a bit of arrowroot from another. Ethel looked like a dancer, her bare feet moving nimbly across the floor. There was a seldom-seen beauty to how she worked, from the way she drifted through the room to the way she gripped the heavy, stone pedestal to crush the mint leaves for Emma’s tea and the rosemary for Mrs. Dalloway’s preventative.
Some time passed, although Ethel was so focused upon the tasks at hand that she scarcely noticed. It might have been minutes or even hours later when Emma’s head popped around the curtain. Ethel glanced up, assuming her friend had grown bored sitting by the fire. Even Ethel sometimes grew bored in the shop, on those long, summer days where her only visitors were songbirds and quick, unpredictable rains. She usually brought her mending with her, but she hadn’t wanted it to get drenched and had left it at home. “You don’t have to stay,” Ethel said. “I know there isn’t much for you to do here.”
“No, it isn’t that. You have a customer,” Emma whispered conspiratorially. “A very handsome man.”
Emma thought every man was handsome, though, and every woman beautiful. She was a young woman who was simply unable to see any ugliness. Sometimes, Ethel was envious of that talent, for she could never quite keep from comparing herself to every woman she met. She might be pretty for a country girl, but she would never be simply pretty.
Ethel rose from her seat and rubbed her hands on the fabric of her dress. “Well, you ought to get his name this time,” she teased, “or else you’ll have another Mr. Heinrich.”
A flush spread delicately over Emma’s lovely face. “We would have been ill-suited anyway,” she said. “I rather think that was Providence preventing me from making a terrible mistake.”
Ethel hid her smirk and lifted the curtain, shifting past Emma. “How may I help you—”
The man’s appearance was so unexpected that for a moment Ethel froze, unable to understand what she was seeing. The man stepped closer and to the flickering firelight, raking his fingers through his dark-blond hair and leaving a trail of rainwater in his wake. Understanding struck Ethel with all the ferocity and suddenness of a bolt of lightning. Before her was Austin Woodmore, the Marquess of Kingshill, who stood once more in her doorway.
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