About the book
Maybe they were from the same star, and a part of his soul had loved her from the beginning of everything...
Too opinionated for her own good, Miss Violet Bowles struggles to accept the role society has bestowed upon her. While she wants nothing more than to follow in her father's footsteps as a merchant, she is pressured to find a suitable husband and settle down.
The scandals and depts his father passed down to him aren't the only things haunting Caleb Gillingham, Earl of Worcastle. With whispered accusations of killing his own betrothed, his only hope at redemption rests in the fiery eyes of Violet.
Their happiness turns to ashes in their mouths when Violet's father goes inexplicably missing. Left with a letter promising nothing but doom, Caleb is desperate to protect Violet from a past mistake that nearly destroyed him. For a predator is most dangerous when wounded....
I have been eviscerated by the cruelest, coldest blade; my insides hollowed out… and, with them, my heart.
A bleak, winter darkness, devoid of moonlight, settled over London. A tumbling snowfall silenced the streets, dulling even the scuttle of rats and the footfalls of shivering figures who hurried home to escape the biting chill.
For Alberta Munro, now Gillingham, there was no such escape, for the frost had taken hold within her, turning the blood in her veins to ice, numbing her heart until she did not know if it still beat, and freezing her mind until she could not think clearly.
“Is it possible to miss someone you have never met? Is it possible to mourn a life that… you never actually lived?” Her voice hitched as she spoke to herself, leaning her head against the icy pane of the library window. “But… you were alive. I felt you growing. I knew you were there, and now… you are gone, and I never got to hold you.”
Tears ran down her cheeks, as silent as the snow falling outside. At nine-and-ten, pretty as a picture, and wed to a man of wealth, she ought to have had her entire life ahead of her. Yet, to her, it felt as though it was already over.
Run home to your Mama. Be warm in her embrace, and by the fire. I hope she shows you how much she loves you.
She watched a flower girl race along the street outside her husband’s Mayfair townhouse, the poor thing stumbling in the white peaks of snow that camouflaged dips and rivulets in the cobblestone road.
Against the far wall of the library, a fire crackled furiously in the marble-framed grate, plumes of steam spitting upward where the wood was not quite dry. But Alberta could feel no warmth from it, nor did she feel she deserved to.
Humming a soft, sad lullaby to herself, she glanced down at the folded letter in her hand, wrapped in the delicate lace of an unworn baby’s bonnet. Lifting the precious parcel to her lips, she shakily kissed both letter and bonnet, hoping that the last shred of love that she was capable of feeling could somehow reach the two people who held a place in her numb heart.
“You would have loved the snow. We would have lain in it, and made angels, and then retreated to the warmth of this house to satisfy ourselves with sugared tea and warm fruit pies.”
She buried her face in the bonnet, wishing there was a scent that she could remember as that of her child. But it smelled of nothing, just as her womb now held nothing.
He stole you from me. He made me lose you, by making me sick with fear and worry. I can never forgive him for that.
Her tears turned bitter, the cracks in her dry lips stinging with the salt of them as they meandered down her cheeks.
She froze as she heard the library door creak open.
“My Lady, might I fetch you anything from the kitchens, or stoke the fire for you?” a shy voice asked.
Faint relief loosened Alberta’s stiff demeanor.
It is only the maid. It is not Caleb… thank heavens.
“No, thank you.” Alberta did not turn. Instead, she lifted the bonnet to her eyes and dabbed away the tears, letting them soak into the lace. She did not want the maid to see how shaken she was.
“Are you going to come out to dinner, My Lady?” The maid persevered, and Alberta guessed that the girl had been sent to try and coax her mistress out of her hideaway.
Caleb, her husband, had learned not to try and urge her to do such things himself, for she was easily spooked, and more likely to retreat further if she thought demands were being made. As such, all the household treated her with kid-gloves.
Alberta shook her head and turned to address the maid directly. “I have no appetite, Gemma,” she said, recognizing the maid.
“Then, might you prefer a tray of cold cuts, for later?” The maid appeared determined, and Alberta felt sorry for the girl. She did not realize she was fighting a losing battle.
Alberta smiled softly. “I thank you for your concern. Perhaps, you might bring a tray to me in an hour or so. I might have an appetite then.” She humored the girl, not wanting to alert any suspicions.
The maid dipped into a curtsey. “Very good, My Lady.”
“Before you go, might you do something for me?” Alberta forced the words past that rapidly swelling lump in her throat. She hid the bonnet in her hand, closing her fingers over the precious garment, and lifted the letter toward the maid.
“A note, My Lady?”
The maid approached hesitantly, as though she were indeed trying to calm a wild horse, moments from bolting.
“Did you want me to send it by express rider, or is it for the morning post?”
Alberta smoothed her thumb across the paper.
“It needs no rider, Gemma. Please, could you deliver this to my husband?” She paused, battling with tears that brimmed and threatened to fall. “I intend to venture from this house shortly, and I would have him know of… my whereabouts. But I cannot face him, at present, in this ill-humor of mine.”
I do not dare to…
If anyone might stop her, it would be him. And she no longer wished to be saved, or stopped, or prevented from meeting her fate.
“Of course, My Lady.”
The maid took the letter, with a momentary hesitation that belied confusion. Although, Alberta felt safe in the knowledge that the servants already thought her peculiar, so this would only be another oddity for them to gossip about later.
They think I do not hear them whispering.
Mostly, they conveyed sympathy for her plight, but there were also suspicions and rumor aplenty as to how a lady of good standing, such as herself, had ended up marrying a gentleman like Caleb Gillingham. After all, the Earl of Worcastle, and his father before him, had been shrouded in a dark mystery of murder and intrigue that burned like a continuous ember in the mouths of high society.
Though she expected it of the peerage, to some degree, she had not expected the staff of this household to be such thorough gossipmongers. Indeed, it had cut her to the core when she had overheard two maids laying blame at Caleb’s door, for the loss of her unborn child.
“’Tis the pox of the father,” one had said, “spreading disease an’ destruction through the vessel of the son. Any seed of his is bound to die, an’ a good thing an’ all.”
The other maid had nodded sagely. “Wouldn’t want that kind of evil wanderin’ this world. It were probably best for the poor creature, and any creature he might spawn, to die before it even takes its first breath.”
Alberta had not had the heart to have them dismissed, for it would have meant admitting what they said to Caleb himself. And she had not wanted to put any more weight on his already heavy shoulders.
They do not know that I have secrets of my own.
Not that any of that mattered now.
“Will that be all, My Lady?” Gemma dipped her head, the letter safely grasped in her thin fingers, her knuckles leathered by caustic soap and steaming water.
Alberta nodded. “Yes, thank you.”
The maid headed out of the door, closing it behind her, leaving Alberta to the quiet, lonely sanctuary of the library. She would have liked to pause and take a moment to put every facet of the room to memory, but there was no time for that. Nor did she suppose it mattered what she remembered.
Hurrying back to the window seat, where she had tucked a small brown bottle behind one of the silk cushions, she plucked it out and removed the wax stopper. If she hesitated, for even a second, she knew she might not go through with it.
I will not falter. This is the best thing I can do… for everyone’s sake.
For a long while, she had teetered on the brink of no longer wishing to exist, but then she had discovered that she was with child, and all thoughts of self-annihilation had evaporated. The child had saved her, in many ways, but then… in a blur of pain and blood and gut-wrenching devastation that had gutted her like a fish, her savior had been lost. And the hopelessness of it all had put her back on that precipice.
Closing her eyes, she threw back her head and let the entire contents of the bottle slide down her throat. The liquid tasted strange—sour and earthy with an almond-like flavor lingering on her tongue. It could have tasted like fire and brimstone itself, and she would still have consumed it.
Now, all I have to do is sleep…
Stretching out on the window seat that served in place of a sill, she rested her head against a cold pane and hugged the baby bonnet to her chest, where her heart would soon cease to beat. As an eerie sense of serenity washed over her, she closed her eyes and resumed the lullaby that she had not finished, so she might lull herself into that perpetual slumber of death.
Time, and the world around her, seemed to slow as she lay there. Outside, a stray dog ambled down the street, and paused to lift its dark eyes toward the window. It blurred in and out of her vision, as though it were not really there. A phantom creature come to guide her to the hereafter.
“Alberta!” A sharp cry splintered through her peace, though it did not startle her as it might have done, had she been in her right mind. Instead, it sounded as though someone called to her from beneath deep water, distorted and odd.
A few seconds later, a figure appeared at her side. Her husband, Caleb, his handsome features contorted in a mask of horror as he seized her by the shoulders and shook her like a man possessed.
“Alberta, what have you done?!” he rasped, his voice raw with emotion. His hazel eyes swam before her, and the letter in his hand wobbled as if it were made of liquid as he brandished it at her. “What have you done? What have you taken? Alberta!”
She smiled at him woozily. “I am… freeing you, my dear… dear friend.”
He swiped up the bottle that lay empty beside her and gasped in panic as his eyes scanned the label.
“We must find you an emetic, Alberta. You cannot do this to yourself. You must not!”
He turned as if to leave, only to whirl around again and pull her into his arms. Evidently, he realized that if he left her side, he might never see her alive again.
“Help! Someone, help!” he bellowed.
A footman poked his head through the doorway. “My Lord?”
“Fetch an emetic, immediately!” Caleb instructed, holding his wife tight. The footman sprinted away, a glimpse of terror etched on his face as he ran off.
“Why did you do this, you foolish girl? Why?!” he growled miserably into Alberta’s shoulder as he grasped her.
I did it for you. I did it for me. I did it for my child.
If she had possessed the strength, she would have embraced him in return, but her arms lay limp at her sides, no longer feeling as though they were attached to her.
“Thank you for… all you have done. Thank you… for saving me,” she murmured, using her last breath to offer gratitude to the one man who had never turned his back on her. The only friend she had ever been able to rely upon. “Do not mourn… me, Caleb. I am going… to see my child. That is all I… want now.”
In the fading moments of consciousness she had left, before her body gave in to the potent poison she had taken, she felt him shake her and pound her back, as though it might make a difference. She was aware of warm moisture against her shoulder, where his tears collected.
“Do not go, Alberta. Please, stay with me until an emetic can be found. Do not do this! I do not want to be free of you. I want you to stay…” he wept, rocking her back and forth as he held her. “My dear friend, please… stay here, where I can take care of you.”
But they both knew, all too well, that it was much too late. The poison was in her blood, and there was nothing anyone could do to help Alberta now.
Six Months Later
A relentless tide of debt threatened to drown Caleb Gillingham, the Earl of Worcastle. Since his father’s passing over a year ago, he had inherited so much more than a title—namely, properties that could not be maintained, the scorn and rampant rumors of society, and a monumental list of debts owed and failed business ventures. Add to that the lingering travesty of a deceased wife, and the scandal it had brought with it, and prospects had never been bleaker for Caleb.
“What am I to do with this, Notley? It grows worse by the week,” Caleb lamented as he resisted the urge to swipe the various toppling towers of documents from his bureau. “The sale of the Tewksbury estate held off the wolves for a time, but since…” His words snagged in his throat, like a sleeve caught upon a door handle. “But the funds have diminished to nothing in the last six months.”
Since Alberta died…
Was what he had meant to say, but he still had trouble saying her name aloud. If only his mind had the same trouble, for it liked to taunt him with images and memories of her when he least expected it, ambushing him when he was just beginning to forget the torment of having her die in his arms.
“I should say you are in dire straits without so much as a paddle to steer your boat, my good man.” Franklin Notley, Caleb’s most trusted friend and advisor, had never been one to sugarcoat harsh realities.
A young gentleman of six-and-twenty, he had wisdom beyond his years, and a talent for solving predicaments, though the solutions were not always easy.
Caleb eyed him. “Would you care to tell me something I do not know?”
“A-ha, well, I am glad you asked.” Franklin steepled his fingers, putting on a rather comical expression of deep thought.
And I am glad you are here.
Truly, Caleb did not think he would have survived the last six months without Franklin there to comfort him, and offer a guiding, supportive hand through his troubles, while the rest of London whispered barbed jabs such as, “the apple does not fall far from the tree,” and “a bad seed always poisons the rest of the crop.” That one was particularly hard for Caleb to swallow, considering Alberta’s fate.
“You still have the family seat of Worcastle Abbey. The manor outside Tewksbury was a mere hovel in comparison,” Franklin said, building up to the final act like a seasoned performer.
“Do not say it.” Caleb groaned, already knowing what his friend intended to suggest.
“Look, I know we have discussed it before, but might it be time to consider selling that monstrous place?” Franklin proceeded regardless. “You cannot live there alone. You would be lost in its labyrinthine halls, and become a ghost story—the madman who perished, and can still be heard wailing of debts upon a wintry night.”
Caleb mustered a tight chuckle. “My father would spear me from the grave if I were to put the Abbey up for sale. I believe he would rather have seen it a ruin, than have it placed in more financially secure hands.”
“Then he should have been careful what he wished for.” Franklin picked up several sheets of paper. “These are the repairs from the last year alone. They are never-ending, my good man, and they do not come inexpensively.” He tapped the top leaf. “This is where the funds from Tewksbury have gone—on repaired turrets, smashed windows, and more leaks than a shot-riddled pail.”
Caleb gave a weary shrug. “It cannot be sold.”
“What if you were to sell parcels of the estate’s grounds?” Franklin suggested. “Or, perhaps, you could steer into the torrent of rumor that surrounds your family, and offer a sort of… murder tour of the castle? We both know such things are untrue, but you could at least recoup some income from the vile lies that are spewed regardless. Play them at their own game.”
Caleb bristled with annoyance, though it was not aimed at Franklin. “I would not offer those slavering dogs the satisfaction of poking through my estate and casting their wicked aspersions.” He clenched his fist. “My father’s funeral was attended by six people because of their vicious untruths. I would not tarnish his memory further.”
When he was but seven years of age, his mother, Minerva, had mysteriously disappeared from Worcastle Abbey in the dead of night. She had never been found, though weeks had been spent in searching for a body or evidence of how she had come to vanish. The lake had been dredged, every hallway had been scoured, every patch of land had been combed through, every shred of her correspondence had been checked, no stone had been left unturned, but to no avail.
Naturally, it had been front-page news, and the nation had seen fit to label Caleb’s father a murderer of the most devious kind. There had been no proof of any foul play, and no body to support such a tale, but the gossip rags did not need anything so concrete. They deemed themselves to be judge, jury, and executioner, though no charges were ever laid against Caleb’s father.
He suffered with that mantel of wife-killer for the rest of his life, and now that mantel has fallen on me.
It turned his stomach to think that anyone could hold him responsible for what happened to Alberta. But blame him they did, whispering that he was just like his father. The only difference being that Caleb had “made it look like a tragic suicide,” while his father had “made it seem like an abscondment.”
“Well, you must do something,” Franklin said bluntly. “We are fast running out of options. You have already sold most of your worthwhile belongings, but without drastic action, you will not be able to keep yourself afloat for much longer.”
“How could he have kept the magnitude of the situation from me?” Caleb muttered, his mind wandering off on a tangent.
When his father passed from a complaint of the heart, Caleb had known there would be debts to contend with. There usually was, when it came to Peers of the Realm who preferred inheritance over making their own income. But he had not known just how bad it was until he had first been given the accounts a week after his father was cold in the ground.
Franklin sighed. “I suppose he wanted to protect you, not realizing that he was actually making matters worse by not revealing the truth of this… well, to put it frankly, this mess.”
“Frank by name, frank by nature.” Caleb tried to chuckle at his own joke, but his heart was not in it.
“Have you thought any more about selling this house?” Franklin gestured around himself.
Caleb shook his head. “I would have no place to live if I sold the townhouse. As you said, it is not as though I can live alone at Worcastle Abbey. I do believe it would make a madman out of me.”
“You could always sell this house and rent elsewhere?” Franklin suggested, putting his Oxford-educated mind to good use.
“With what funds? Paying rents upon a property is a drain I can ill afford,” Caleb replied. “This time next year, I would be sitting with you at a much smaller bureau, lamenting that the funds from the sale of this townhouse have also dwindled to pennies.”
Franklin clicked his tongue. “An excellent point, well made. Moreover, where would I stay during the London season?” He flashed a wink at his friend. “You are quite right. We cannot even contemplate selling this lovely abode.”
“There is money left over from the auctions on my latest belongings, but I do not know what to do with it. I am clinging to it like a miser.” Caleb ran a stressed hand through his light brown locks, which had grown oily with his anxiety.
Franklin’s expression transformed into one of mischief.
“I sense a speculation afoot. There is much investment to be made in the Americas, if one can be bold. Cotton or tobacco, perhaps? Or you might funnel your money into fabrics and spices from the Far East?”
“I do not have the capital for that. It would only add debt upon the rest of this.” Caleb poked at the interminable stacks of papers, which only proceeded to depress him further with their negative figures and failed business endeavors, foolishly undertaken by his ill-equipped father. His father had been many things, but he had never been a businessman.
Franklin’s mouth broke into a wide grin. “Then how about a sugar venture? There is much less risk to yourself and the capital from the auctions, for sugar cane is grown in abundance, and there is always demand for it. Why, I imagine it is like powdered diamond in terms of returns on investment.”
“Sugar?” Caleb cocked his head to one side in thought. Truly, he did not know of any household in Mayfair that did not have a dish of it served with tea. Even the lower echelons used it in their cakes and sweet treats, though it was not usually as refined as that which found its way to the quaint sugar bowls of high society.
Franklin nodded. “And you already have an associate in the sugar business, which would make it all the sweeter, if you will pardon my jest.” He laughed heartily.
“I will pardon it, this time.” Caleb managed a smile. “But who do I know who is in such a business? I cannot recall.”
“That is why you keep me close, my good man.” Franklin flexed his steepled fingers, cracking his knuckles in a way that made Caleb’s spine twinge. “Do you remember a man by the name of Finley Bowles?”
Caleb frowned. “Is he of the peerage?”
“Goodness, no, though you would not know it to look at him… or his accounts.” Franklin’s grin widened, evidently bolstered by Caleb’s interest. “He had a wealthy benefactor, who aided him in in his education. From Eton and then on to Cambridge, he has brushed shoulders with England’s finest since he was a boy, if my sources are correct.”
“Eton…” Caleb shuddered as he remembered his own time in those hallowed and ghastly halls. He could still feel the sting of the cane on his palms and buttocks, if he dwelled too long on the memory.
Franklin nodded. “He attended with your father, and the two of them had a friendly association. He even sent condolences when your father passed, though he could not attend for he was traveling to the West Indies to survey his sugar plantation. I am surprised you do not remember, but I suppose I am the one with the mind like a sponge—I absorb and retain everything.”
“Until the day someone wrings you out,” Caleb teased, feeling a certain optimism growing in his chest.
Franklin chuckled. “It would take a fearsome pair of hands to do that.” He leaned forward across the bureau. “Currently, Mr. Bowles is the most successful sugar merchant in all of London. I have even heard him heralded as the Sugar King, though I find that rather gauche. Indeed, there are whisperings that he may even be knighted one day, for his services to the sweet tooth of the Prince Regent.”
Caleb began to nod involuntarily. “And you think this Mr. Bowles would aid me?”
“It would not hurt to call on past acquaintanceships. He clearly held no suspicions toward your father, or he would not have sent his condolences,” Franklin urged. “You should arrange a meeting to discuss investment opportunities. As with all wealthy men who are not titled, I imagine he would not mind improving his station with the support of a peer. It could be a winning combination.”
“Franklin, I could kiss you!” Caleb cheered, already rising from his seat to instruct his footman to deliver a meeting request to this sugar merchant.
Franklin held up his hands in mock protest. “Considering the gossip that already surrounds you, I would prefer it if you did not.”
Caleb rolled his eyes. “One of these days, your dark humor will see you on the wrong end of someone’s closed fist.”
“Ah, that is how I got this scar above my brow.” Franklin rubbed the silvered flaw with a smirk. “Fortunately, I heal phenomenally quick.”
“I will be back in a moment, and I feel this hopeful occasion may call for some brandy… and perhaps the ceremonial burning of these wretched stacks of paper.” Smiling properly, for the first time in what felt like years, Caleb strode out of the room to call upon his footman.
Gentlemen and ladies who had not spurned his father’s name when he was alive, and continued on in their slander now that he was dead, were few and far between. If he had finally happened upon one who might help him, then that would be a stroke of luck, indeed.
Does one not have to be found guilty to be called a murderer?
He sighed heavily.
No… in this world, I suppose one does not.
He knew that better than anyone. Losing Alberta had taught him that a person could always be labeled guilty by the court of society, even when they were entirely, heartbreakingly innocent.
Violet Bowles poured over a map that she had spread across the dining table like a cloth, for it was the only space in the Kensington apartments where it would fit.
“Do you have to do that now, cherub?” Her grandmother, Janette Bowles, raised a discouraging eyebrow as a corner of the map fell into her cup of tea. “I’d hoped to have a quiet morning before the house is overrun with barnacles.”
Violet looked up from the Indian Ocean. “Hmm?”
“I said, what are you doin’ that now for?” she replied more firmly, a note of her native East London accent slipping through the plum tones she had tried to adopt over the years since her son’s success. “You’re ruining me tea with all that fusty paper and ink. Who knows where it’s been.”
“I have to put my dot on it, or I won’t have any notion of when it’s coming back,” Violet protested, for she was following the latest voyage of the Celeste, the ship that would bring spices back to London.
She had different-colored dots for each of the voyages and cargoes that interested her, though she always kept the red dots for the ships that brought her father’s sugar back to England. As the Sapphire Siren was currently in port, at least by her estimations, she did not need to add a dot for at least a week.
Violet dipped a brush for fine detail into her palette of watercolors, and added a green dot halfway across the Indian Ocean, her tongue sticking out as she concentrated. “What were you saying about barnacles, Nana?”
“Oh, so you do listen?” Her grandmother, affectionately referred to as ‘Nana,’ chuckled as she lifted the offending corner of the map out of her tea, and took a sip regardless. “Your pa has that meeting with them fancy folks this morning. Ergo, barnacles.”
“You shouldn’t call them that, Nana,” Violet scolded, satisfied with her dot. Clambering back off the table, she began to pack away her watercolors, before she attempted the mammoth task of re-rolling the map.
Her grandmother puffed air between her lips. “I’ll call them what I please. They cling to your pa, wanting to sap his money. If he weren’t so wealthy, you can bet your behind that they’d not toss a cupful of water on him if he were on fire.”
“That’s why he’s got us, to douse him if he happens to spontaneously combust.” Violet hurried to roll the map, ending up with two misshapen cylinders that she clutched to her chest. “Which is why I should probably be getting dressed. I can’t be meeting an Earl when I’m still in my housecoat.”
“I don’t remember your pa saying you could sit in on his meeting,” her grandmother replied with a knowing smile. As the matriarch of the household, and the only mother figure that Violet had ever known, the older woman knew her granddaughter better than anyone. Nothing slipped by her.
Violet grinned. “What he doesn’t know until it’s too late can’t hurt him.”
“Don’t be causing no trouble now, cherub.” Her grandmother had called her that pet name for as long as she could remember, likely due to her plump and rosy cheeks and her bouncy curls.
“When do I ever cause trouble?” Violet put on her most angelic face.
Her grandmother snorted. “You’ll be the death of me, cherub.”
“No, Nana, I daresay you’ll outlive us all out of sheer stubbornness. Death itself would be quaking in its boots if it had to come and get you.”
They shared a rather macabre sense of humor, which her grandmother had passed on to her, from her formative years on the docks of East London, scraping a living as a fishwife, hawking her wares every morning at the crack of dawn until her hands glittered with fish scales and stank of fish guts. Those were tales that Violet loved to hear, but she did not have time to journey into the past right now.
“Ah, the gall of you!” Her grandmother feigned outrage, before cackling into her cup of tea.
Since Violet was a newborn, it had only been the three of them. Her mother had died in childbirth, and her grandfather had died long ago, when her father was only a few years younger than Violet’s eight-and-ten years. Neither had remarried, and Violet adored their safe little trio.
Violet walked toward her grandmother. “I love you, Nana.” She paused, eyeing her grandmother with irreverence. “Don’t you go telling Papa that I plan to infiltrate his meeting, or I shall spread this map over the table every morning until you are forced to retreat to the drawing room.”
“These old lips are sealed, though your threat don’t make no difference. It wouldn’t be me morning tea if there weren’t a corner of dirty map trailing in it.” Her grandmother grinned as Violet bent to kiss her cheek. It was more weathered than fine ladies of her age, but Violet liked that about her. She wore the lines of the life she had led before her son raised her out of hardship, and that made Violet all the more determined to make something of herself in the business realm, so she could ensure her grandmother and father’s comfort for the rest of their days.
“Don’t put too much sugar in it,” Violet warned playfully. “You know what the physician said.”
Her grandmother scoffed. “Aye, and the day I let a physician tell me what I can and can’t put in me tea is the day I might as well hop on the death cart and let ‘em take me off to me grave.”
With laughter still tinkling upon her lips, Violet exited the dining room and went upstairs to her bedchamber, to change into something more fitting for an audience with an Earl. Although, she was careful to tiptoe past her father’s study, not wanting to alert him to her plans.
If the son of a sailor and a fishwife can make a name for himself, why can’t I?
She knew the answer lay in her gender, but she would not allow that to stop her. After all, her grandmother was stronger and more intimidating than any man she had ever met.
As the carriage clock on the fine granite mantelpiece chimed ten o’clock, Caleb and Franklin were shown into the immaculate drawing room of the Bowles’ lavish apartments.
A butler by the name of Harcourt offered them tea, and urged them to make themselves comfortable on the twin, cream settees, upholstered with embroidered brushed satin, that flanked a blazing fire.
“Do you have sugar?” Franklin quipped, and Caleb could have sworn he saw the butler roll his eyes. Undoubtedly, he had heard the jest countless times before.
“Of course, sir.” The butler removed the lid of a teal-colored ceramic sugar bowl, complete with a dainty silver spoon. “I will inform Mr. Bowles of your arrival.”
Caleb had barely taken a sip of his tea when a finely-dressed gentleman entered the drawing room, punctually stepping over the threshold on the tenth chime of the carriage clock. The fellow was tall, but much thinner than Caleb had expected of a sugar merchant, reminding him of a heron. He had a thinning crop of ashy-blond hair, peppered with white at the sides, and kindly green eyes that gave him a more youthful demeanor.
“My Lords, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Mr. Bowles approached the two gentlemen, and shook their hands, before he settled onto the opposite settee.
Franklin waved a hand through the air. “I am no Lord, not until my father dies. Such is the blight of being a mere Baron’s son. We cannot all be Earls, I suppose.” He gave Caleb a playful nudge in the ribs.
“Ah… I confess, I am rather rusty when it comes to my knowledge of the current peerage. I do not have many dealings with society beyond ensuring they have their measure of sugar,” Mr. Bowles admitted, with a warm laugh. “How should I refer to you?”
“Mr. Notley will do just fine,” Franklin replied.
Just then, a vision in lavender breezed into the drawing room, diverting Caleb’s attention away from the repartee. Lustrous fair hair, which seemed blonde one moment, and a light brown the next, framed a cherubic face of alabaster skin and flushed cheeks. Keen green eyes, darker than those of Mr. Bowles, showed no inhibitions in making intent observation of him.
Who are you?
He realized his mouth was gaping open, and quickly pressed his lips closed to avoid embarrassment, though he suspected she had already seen him gawping. The empire line of her gown could not entirely conceal her shapely curves, and he knew he had let his gaze linger a moment too long on the square cut of her neckline.
“Violet?” Mr. Bowles seemed startled by the interruption, rising sharply to his feet and heading toward her.
The young woman smiled sweetly.
“Grandmama said I should attend on you, in case you required anything during your meeting.”
“We have servants for that,” Mr. Bowles said, in a pointed tone that suggested there were other forces at play here. Indeed, from the somewhat mischievous upward turn of the young woman’s lips, Caleb suspected no such instruction had been given by the unseen grandmother.
“Well, I can call for them on your behalf, should the biscuits and tea run out. Business discussions cannot be had with parched throats and empty stomachs.” The young woman’s eyes sparkled with vitality, as she weaved her arm through her now upright father’s, and guided him back to his seat. A battle had evidently been lost, and this Violet appeared to be the victor, as she seated herself beside Mr. Bowles.
Mr. Bowles sighed, though there was a hint of pride about his expression. “This is my daughter, Miss Violet Bowles. I hope you do not mind if she remains for the duration of our meeting?”
“I will only eavesdrop, anyway,” Miss Bowles teased. “I must garner an appetite before luncheon, and nothing makes me more ravenous than talk of trade and investment.”
Franklin erupted in an unexpected laugh. “Then, you are welcome to stay. We would not want to rob a young lady of her appetite.”
“No… we would not,” Caleb added, wishing he had been first to offer a laugh, for the young woman seemed to radiate with the sound of that good humor.
Miss Bowles gestured with a swoop of her hand. “Please, continue at your leisure. Pretend I am not even here. I will not make a peep.”
She is… a unique creature.
He found himself momentarily distracted by her fiery presence in the room, unabashed by what others might have deemed improper behavior. Caleb, on the other hand, was rather entranced by her spunk.
Snapping out of it, he cleared his throat. “I believe you knew my father, the former Earl of Worcastle?”
Mr. Bowles nodded. “I was sorry to hear of his passing. He and I were not close, per se, but we were always friendly with one another when we crossed paths in the club, or at social gatherings.” He proffered a gentle smile. “He was a good man, My Lord. I do believe that.”
“Indeed he was, but he was disastrous with his business ventures,” Franklin chimed in.
“Thank you for saying that.” Caleb dipped his head in gratitude toward Mr. Bowles. “But my friend here is correct, and I would seek to remedy that with a business venture of my own.”
Sometimes, wealth cannot buy business acumen.
His father had never been much of a gambler, but after all he had suffered at the hands of society’s insidious chatter, he had been over-eager to take the advice of others, in the pursuit of clawing back friendships. Unfortunately, that naivety and willingness had only led to ruined accounts and a crumbling estate that bled money.
Miss Bowles nodded with interest. “Sugar is one of the lowest risk investments you can make. Barring a bad season of weather, there is little to prevent the import and export of cargo. Even then, there are numerous plantations that can be called upon, should one fall to a storm.” She gestured to her father. “That is why my father is a reliable success, for he not only owns a plantation in a sheltered locale, which diminishes the possibility of failure due to inclement weather; he also imports from elsewhere.”
Caleb’s mouth dropped open again. Glancing to his side, he found Franklin in an equally astonished stupor.
“As you can see,” Mr. Bowles said, with a content smile, “my daughter is au fait with the inner workings of the sugar trade, although she might be somewhat premature in divulging such information. Is it an investment that you are seeking, or were you merely looking for advice?”
Caleb and Franklin exchanged a thoughtful look.
“An investment would be preferable,” Caleb answered, for he knew he did not have the capital to put money into ships or a plantation, to begin a business of his own.
Mr. Bowles smiled, as if that was the right answer. “Then, there is much we can do to help you.”
Miss Bowles nodded eagerly. “If you’re new to the sugar trade, then it is prudent to begin small, with extensive returns,” she explained, her confidence and surety drawing Caleb into her knowledgeable words. “Once returns have been recouped in the first instance, then you stake a higher investment the next time. A carousel of gains.”
“I could not have put it better myself.” Mr. Bowles laughed. “If you would agree, I would be willing to take an investment from you, to purchase a stake in our next import of sugar, thus allowing me to make a larger purchase. In return, I would take a small fee from your portion as a sales cost, and the rest would be your profit.”
“You can’t deny, that’s a delicious offer.” Miss Bowles beamed. Ordinarily, Caleb would not have put much credence in the knowledge of a lady, not when it came to the man’s realm of business, but she spoke so charmingly and assertively that he found himself hooked on her every word.
Caleb shook his head to try and dispense with the spell she seemed to be weaving around him. “And you say it is minimal risk?”
“There is always risk,” Mr. Bowles replied. “Ships can sink, sugar cane can rot in bad weather, as my daughter stated, and there is the potential for spoiled cargo.”
“But…” Miss Bowles raised a finger. “There is less chance of pirates wrecking ships to steal crates of sugar, and the initial investment cost is far less than you would be expected to offer for silk or spices or precious metals.”
Caleb turned to Franklin. “What do you think?”
“I think Miss Bowles could sell sand to a nomad.” Franklin smiled, visibly enamored with the young woman. “And she has certainly sold me on a sugar investment.”
Caleb looked to Mr. Bowles. “I have heard all I need to hear, and I believe it would be in both of our best interests if we proceeded.” He made no mention of Miss Bowles’ persuasion, though she had been the one to sway him. He supposed he did not want to diminish Mr. Bowles’ part, in case he became offended, though that did not seem likely. The man looked thoroughly proud of his daughter, and rightly so.
“I will have documentation drawn up this afternoon, and have it sent over to your residence for you to peruse and amend as you see fit.” Mr. Bowles stood, prompting Caleb to do the same. “I look forward to our business ventures together. I am certain your father would be pleased, if he were still here.”
Caleb held out his hand. “I daresay that he would.”
They shook on the agreement, though there would still be a fair amount of back and forth to go before they signed on a deal. Still, Caleb felt a sort of serendipitous energy coursing through his veins as he gripped Mr. Bowles’ hand in his. Franklin had been wise to suggest this, for he would not have met Miss Bowles and garnered a lucrative trade prospect if he had not.
“I hate to rush you out of my house, but I must depart shortly for another meeting.” Mr. Bowles looked apologetic, as he checked his golden pocket watch.
Caleb shook his head. “Not at all, Mr. Bowles. Business, like tides, wait for no man. In the meantime, I will look forward to receiving the documents.”
“I do not mind entertaining these gentlemen, while they finish their tea,” Miss Bowles offered. Caleb tried not to show his enthusiasm on his face, for he would very much have liked to spend some more time in the young lady’s charming company.
Mr. Bowles mustered a nervous laugh. “A generous suggestion, my girl, but I am sure they have their own business to attend to.” He motioned for Caleb and Franklin to exit. “Come, I will lead you out.”
Hiding his disappointment, Caleb followed his host out of the apartments, and onto the beautiful, leaf-strewn street that surrounded Kensington Gardens. It was a fine residence, and no mistake, in a sought-after part of London, but his mind remained fixated on a different kind of beauty. The kind still ensconced in those apartments.
Franklin gave a low whistle as he joined Caleb on the pavement, the two men ambling toward their waiting carriage. “My word, Gillingham, is Miss Bowles not the most exquisite vixen you have ever beheld? I would have signed over my estate without noticing, if she had asked for it.”
“She is… breathtaking. I have never met a young lady like her,” Caleb confessed.
Having been forced to mingle at balls and soirees—well, the ones he was reluctantly invited to—he had grown weary of the spoiled, cossetted socialites that were paraded before him. Usually, they were the daughters of barons and baronets, who were in no position to be particular about whom they wed. Their fathers and mothers did not mind considering a suspected killer and the son of another suspected killer, if they could make their daughter a Countess.
“She is certainly spirited.” Franklin adopted a coy smile, as though he already knew what his friend was thinking. “A true butterfly, compared to the drab moths of society’s darlings.”
Caleb cast his friend an auspicious glance, as they clambered into the waiting carriage. “I am glad you suggested this, Notley.”
“And why might that be?” Franklin smirked.
“I have suddenly been struck with another idea that might work to our advantage,” Caleb confided. “If I were to ask Mr. Bowles for his daughter’s hand in marriage, I would gain both an incomparable wife and a lifelong tie to her father’s wealth.”
“You would be a fool not to pursue it, my good man.” Franklin adjusted his collar. “And I confess, if you do not… I am afraid that I will have to.”
Watching the verdant greenery of Kensington Gardens pass by in their summer decadence, Caleb leaned his head against the windowpane and though of Miss Bowles.
But what of her?
There was every chance that she would think him a leech, if he did not tread carefully in his pursuit of her. Moreover, he was well versed in the dual faces of people—the one shown in public and the one shown behind closed doors. If Mr. Bowles had even the slightest doubt about Caleb’s troubled past, the chase would be over before it had even begun.
Violet braced for the onslaught. Her father was a loving and wonderful man, whom she adored to her very bones, but he had certain parameters that she was not permitted to cross. And she suspected she may have put more than a toe over the line by intruding on his meeting with the Earl of Worcastle and his acquaintance, Mr. Notley.
“I am not going to berate you, Violet.” Her father put an arm around her shoulders, as they walked together toward the kitchens. It was tradition, after a business meeting, for her and her father to eat thick slices of buttered bread with rich, sticky jam slathered on top.
She dared a smile. “You aren’t?” She slipped back into her more casual intonation, which she had learned from her grandmother, despite her father’s attempts to have her elocute properly.
“Why would I, when you gained us a considerable triumph today?” He gave her a jostling side-squeeze. “Though I do not think you should offer to entertain gentlemen by yourself, in future. It gives the wrong impression.”
She matched her step to his, as she had done when she was a little girl. “I just wanted to be polite. You’ve always taught me that the best way to succeed in business is to charm the people you want something from.”
“That is true, but you must choose your moments. It is different for you,” he replied, with a touch of sadness.
“Because I’m a woman?” She did not say it combatively. She already understood, all too well, the disadvantages of her sex. Why, a few months ago, she had sat with her father at a similar meeting, and had been talked over and mocked whenever she had tried to offer advice.
“I wish it were not so, for you have more wits about you than half of the fellows who attend Eton and university, but the world is a stubborn thing—it cannot be changed, simply because we want it to.” He sighed, and offered her an expression of apology.
Determined not to be deflated, she shot him a grin. “Only half?”
“Perhaps more.” He chuckled, his demeanor shifting to one of lighter humor. It pleased Violet, for she did not like to see him saddened because of her.
I have to disagree with you, Papa. I believe the world can be changed because we want it to. How else would it be made to alter?
She did not say so out loud, as it would only have brought that gloominess back to her father’s face, but it did not stop her fierce heart from feeling every word.
“What did you make of those two?” Her father changed the subject as they entered the kitchens, where a bombardment of delicious scents struck them—the buttery aroma of baking pastries, the tantalizing smell of frying onions, and the fragrant tang of ripe, swollen strawberries.
Violet picked up one of the fruits and bit into it, red juice running down her chin, while the rest of it was running down the back of her throat. “They were pleasant for barnacles.”
“My mother has a great deal to answer for.” Her father tutted, though she could tell he did not mean it. “You cannot call them that.”
“That’s what I told her, but I much prefer it to leeches.” Violet polished off the rest of the strawberry and reached for another, only to have her hand smacked away by Mrs. Colman, the cook.
“You’ll have no jam if yer eat ‘em all!” she scolded.
Violet laughed. “I couldn’t help myself.”
“I think you just did,” her father joked, the two of them descending into a fit of giggles that echoed through the house.
The next day, spurred on by a night of delightful dreams, each featuring the remarkable and enchanting Miss Bowles, Caleb returned to the pretty apartments on the edge of Kensington Gardens. It was only just gone nine o’clock and he hoped that Mr. Bowles would not think him overeager, but he had not been able to wait longer.
This time, Franklin did not accompany him, for this was a task that a gentleman had to perform himself. Besides, Caleb had a residual fear that his friend might actually attempt to pursue Miss Bowles, if given the opportunity, though he had stated last night that he had no intention of stepping on Caleb’s toes.
Straightening his lapels and tightening his cravat, he approached the front door and knocked.
Harcourt, the butler, answered a minute later. “Good morning, My Lord.” He bowed. “What may I do for you?”
“Is Mr. Bowles at home?”
Harcourt nodded. “He is, though he will soon be departing on business. May I relay a message or documentation, perhaps?”
“I would like to speak with him, if that is possible?” Caleb kept his tone as courteous as he could, despite feeling a spike of irritation that he was being waylaid by this gatekeeper.
“Of course, My Lord. This way.” The butler led him back into the drawing room where he had sat the previous day, and left him to settle onto the settee as he went to fetch Mr. Bowles.
Anxiously awaiting the fellow’s arrival, Caleb practiced what he might say. “I would like to request your daughter’s hand in marriage. No… that will not do. How about—I found myself enraptured by your daughter yesterday, and I hoped I might make another offer, in addition to the one we have agreed upon. One of marriage to that divine creature.” He ran a hand through his hair, which he had freshly washed for the occasion.
“Goodness, why is this so difficult?” he muttered. “Surely, her father will say yes. I am an Earl, and though my fortunes are… dire, he is the one person who will know that they are on the rise. Even so, my title with his wealth, continued through his daughter. It is an ideal match for all involved.”
He supposed his nerves had something to do with the fact that he had never done this before. Prior to his marriage to Alberta, there had been no fear of rejection. Being with child as she was, her father had no choice but to accept the union. It had smarted more of a business transaction than the deal that had been made yesterday, in truth.
He did not know that the child was not mine.
His heart felt suddenly leaden with the weight of those memories. Alberta had not asked him to lie, nor had she asked him to save her, but she was his dear friend. He had not even hesitated, considering the alternative of her ruination.
And now they call me killer, when I would have done anything to save her. My only mistake was not realizing that she needed saving from herself.
He was not left to contemplate that tragic event for too long, as Mr. Bowles entered the drawing room.
“My Lord, what a pleasant surprise,” he said cheerily. “Have you come to discuss the contract that I sent yesterday? You did not have to come all the way here. I would have sent one of my clerks to fetch your reply.”
Caleb took a breath. “Actually, I am here on another, though not unrelated, matter.”
“Oh?” Mr. Bowles took a seat. “Have you decided not to invest?”
Caleb forced what he hoped was a natural smile onto his lips. “No, it is nothing like that. I am still very much interested in the investment and am much of the way through the thorough documents that you sent.” He rubbed the back of his neck to try and loosen up the tension. “I have actually come to… um… ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
Mr. Bowles’ eyes widened. “Pardon? I do not think I heard you correctly.”
“I found myself utterly enchanted by your daughter yesterday, and I would like to request her hand in marriage,” Caleb reiterated. “I can offer her the title of Countess, and she would be well taken care of, once I have my affairs in order. It would be of benefit to your business, I am sure, to have your daughter wed to a member of the peerage.”
Mr. Bowles fell silent for several agonizing minutes, his face unnervingly unreadable.
It is a good sign, I know it is. Once the astonishment has subsided, all will be well, Caleb told himself.
However, he had not accounted for one important thing: Mr. Bowles and her daughter were not the typical, title-seeking sycophants that he usually encountered.
“I am sorry if this comes as a disappointment, My Lord, but I cannot accept your offer,” Mr. Bowles replied, at last. “My daughter will choose her own husband, as and when she is ready.”
“But… I am an Earl,” Caleb blurted out, not quite understanding why this was not going as he had hoped. Most untitled families of wealth, who had daughters, would have sold their souls for such an opportunity as this. Or, indeed, they would have sold their daughters.
Mr. Bowles smiled warmly, with no hint of resentment. “I am aware, My Lord, but that does not matter to me and my daughter. I know there are many who would call me a dolt for refusing your offer, but my daughter’s happiness must rest in her own hands. I would never forgive myself if I betrothed her to someone she did not love.”
“She might come to love me,” Caleb pressed, unwilling to accept defeat. “There are countless wives who come to care for their husbands in marriages that have been arranged, and I know that I would cherish her.”
Mr. Bowles shook his head. “I have no doubt that you would, My Lord, but… your affections are not returned. I apologize for being so blunt, but I feel it best to be direct so there can be no misunderstanding.”
“So, you are declining my offer?” Caleb was dumbfounded. After all the daughters of barons and baronets and wealthy merchants, he realized he had been lulled into a false sense of security.
“I am, My Lord.” Mr. Bowles paused. “And if you feel you can no longer continue with our deal, I will understand, though I do not see any reason why we cannot uphold it and forget this ever happened.”
His chest clenched, as though he had been struck a hefty blow that had made his muscles recoil. He might have expected a rejection like this from another Earl, or a Duke, or even a Viscount, but this was utterly injurious to his pride. It physically pained him, while his cheeks flared hot with embarrassment.
“My Lord?” Mr. Bowles prompted, unruffled.
I cannot lose this business relationship for the sake of that intoxicating girl. I will be the one ruined if I reject his deal.
It injured him all the more, knowing just how low he had been brought by debts that were not his.
Never in his life had he thought he would have to prostrate himself before a merchant or be made to realize that a title did not mean anything at all. Even an impoverished king was still a king, just as an impoverished Earl was still an Earl. But that did not matter to Mr. Bowles, somehow. To Caleb, it beggared belief, yet this was the situation he found himself in. And he had to make his decision cautiously, or risk losing everything else that came with his title.
“Of course, we will proceed with our deal,” he said, his voice stiff. “And we will forget this ever happened, as you suggested.”
Mr. Bowles smiled. “Very good, My Lord. I hoped you would say that, and I trust there will not be any ensuing awkwardness between us.” He stood, and Caleb knew the conversation was over. “I assure you, it is not a commentary on you or your person; it is a matter of my daughter’s future, and I would have her wed whomever she chooses.”
“I understand,” Caleb replied tightly, getting to his feet.
“I look forward to hearing your thoughts on our contract.” Mr. Bowles led him to the front door, where Harcourt released him back out onto the street.
Caleb nodded in a daze. “Yes. I will return them to you once I am done reading.”
“Good day to you, My Lord.” Mr. Bowles dipped his head.
“And to you,” Caleb replied, a moment before the door closed in his face.
He stood out in the glaring sunlight for an age, blinking in confusion, as though he might wake up from a bad dream at any moment. One in which he had not embarrassed himself. Slowly, he went back over what had occurred in there, trying to make sense of it. As he did so, one particular sentence lodged in his mind like a fishbone: Your affections are not returned.
He did not know what was worse, that, or the fact that he had almost demolished the proverbial ladder that would allow him out of his pit of overwhelming debt.
“I nearly ruined it all,” he whispered, his voice laced with fear. Earl or not, he was no better than a drowning rat trying to cling to driftwood. He was the desperate one. Any power or sway he had thought he had left now lay trampled to dust beneath him.
For a sugar merchant, Mr. Bowles had left a rather sour aftertaste in Caleb’s mouth.
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
A Countess so Eligibly Unmarried is live on Amazon NOW!