About the book
“All my heart has ever wanted is you.”
Eleanor is trapped in a nightmare. Ever since her disdainful cousin inherited her father’s title, he has treated her as nothing more than a maid. And when she learns that he plans on marrying her, she must do everything in her power to escape him. So, she hides her true identity and seeks employment.
Griffin is most of all a man of honor. So, when he hired a young woman as his mother’s companion, he never expected to find himself utterly in love with her. Or that Eleanor is not who he thinks. And when Eleanor’s well-kept secret is threatened to be revealed, it might ruin their only chance for a fairy-tale love..
“It is only a matter of time, my dear girl,” the kindly old physician said softly as he packed his vials and powders back into his leather bag. “I should think sometime before dawn, else I’d be very surprised.”
Eleanor couldn’t answer for fear of becoming hysterical, her tears held at bay only by sheer strength of will. Such a display would only make the physician reluctant to let her in to see her father, if he returned at all, that is. Instead, she nodded mutely.
“I’ll see myself out, Lady Eleanor,” he said, patting her shoulder in a gesture that was most likely meant to comfort her. Instead, it felt like an iron vice clamping down on her, refusing to let her flee to the sanctuary of her bedroom and pretend that none of this was real.
Alone, Eleanor moved closer to her father’s bedside, trying to take in every detail of his face. Though the illness had rendered him nearly unrecognizable to some, she could still make out the features that proved her beloved father was still with her.
What will I do if you are not with me? she thought, the familiar grief and misery welling up and making her breath shallow. How am I to go on without you?
“You will need to be strong,” he had told her only a few days ago in a moment of lucidity. “Your sister… she will need you more than ever.”
My sister, Eleanor thought, her thoughts going to the younger girl who’d always had such a difficult time of things. What would happen to little Rose now that they would be left orphaned? Who would ensure that Rose—sweet, gentle, delicate Rose—was well looked after?
“Your cousin will take good care of you both,” Eleanor’s father had rasped, closing his eyes against the effort of speaking. “He is a good man.”
Eleanor thought of the cousin who was her own age—the son of her father’s cousin—whom she had only met on one other occasion. She remembered not thinking very highly of him, spoiled as he was, but she willed herself to think of him in a more kindly way. After all, that had been years ago when they were both children.
Still, the thought of a stranger moving into Witherton Hall and having control of their lives was alarming. Eleanor had always known that every decision her father made would be in her best interest, as well as that of her little sister. But could she say the same about a distant cousin who’d suddenly been elevated from the son of a country baron to the rank of Earl of Bancroft?
“Arthur may be young, but he knows the importance of his role,” her father had wheezed, holding her hand weakly in his. “I must trust him. We all must… trust him.”
Eleanor had implored her father not to try to speak any further, and not only because she had no desire to think of this cousin taking guardianship of the estate. The earl had declined so rapidly that she thought she could practically see him disappearing before her. Every word he uttered was surely one less second she would have with him, the effort too great for him to bear.
Now, as Eleanor sat at her father’s bedside keeping watch over him, she forced her grief aside so that she could only think of good things. Though she had lost her mother when Rose was born, their father had always made sure they never felt her absence. He had been the most doting man, always visiting with the girls in Rose’s room when she was too sickly to come downstairs, bringing them little tokens from his travels when he had to leave them, and more.
Eleanor clung to his nearly lifeless hand and waited, knowing she had to be strong. Rose would need her now, as she was the only family left. This cousin had never even laid eyes on Witherton, so he hardly counted as one who could replace their father. Even though his letter said he would be bringing two sisters of his own, Eleanor had a sinking feeling in her stomach that they would not be the dearest of friends.
“Ellie,” her father whispered, startling Eleanor from her thoughts.
“Yes, Father?” she replied at once, her grip on his hand tightening as though she could physically keep him with her.
“You… should go,” he said, his eyes drifting closed again. “Please. Don’t stay… for the end.”
“Father, do not ask me to leave you,” she said, rubbing the back of his hand where it was growing colder.
“Please, Daughter. Send… Keyes. He’ll wait with me,” her father answered slowly.
The butler? How could he wish for Mr. Keyes to remain at his side instead of her? The sting of such a request silenced Eleanor briefly until she realized that her father only wished to spare her the most horrible moment she would ever have to witness.
“I will, Father. I’ll do anything you ask,” Eleanor said tearfully, rising to do as he wished.
“Be good… to Rose. Give… her my love,” he pleaded, every word requiring a herculean effort. “And Eleanor? Be happy. Always happy.”
“I will, Father,” she answered, knowing it would be impossible but wanting his heart to be at ease.
“Go now, my girl.”
The earl let his head fall to the side, leaving Eleanor to stare in silent horror. The only sound in the room was the rattling in his chest as he breathed, telling her he was still with her for now.
“Keyes!” Eleanor called out desperately after throwing open the door to her father’s chambers. The servants who waited mournfully in the hallway parted to permit the butler to come forward.
Eleanor looked to the old man and felt her heart plummet when she saw his red-rimmed eyes. She nodded, then stepped back to hold the door open wider.
“My father has asked if you would remain with him,” Eleanor said as evenly as she could manage.
“Yes, my lady,” the butler answered softly. “It would be my greatest honor.”
Eleanor moved away from the door and let him enter, nodding silently when he bowed before entering the chamber and closing the door behind him. She stared at the closed door for a little while, the strangest sensation of loss and confusion flooding her veins.
“My lady? Why don’t you come and sit for a while?” the housekeeper, Mrs. Owens, suggested kindly.
Eleanor looked at the older woman but nearly stared through her, unrecognizing. She let the housekeeper take her by the elbow and lead her to a chair, feeling out of sorts with the way everyone stood around, watching her as they joined her in her misery.
“What’s to become of us, Mrs. Owens? What will we do without my father’s love and constant concern?” she asked, the housekeeper’s face blurring behind Eleanor’s tears.
“I don’t know, my dear,” the older woman answered, “but I do trust that the Lord will watch over us, all of us. And of course, your father will be watching over you as well… always.”
The earl was gone before sunrise.
Four years later…
“I simply don’t understand, Arthur,” Prudence whined in that grating, nasally voice she reserved for wheedling her brother. “The Season is about to start. Why can’t we have new gowns?”
“I’ve explained it a hundred times. I’ve no intention of canceling the order at the butcher’s and giving that money to some modiste just because you want yards and yards of costly new fabric. Your gowns from last year are perfectly suitable,” Arthur said, frowning at his breakfast.
“But everyone has already seen those!” Gertrude retorted, sitting back in her chair and crossing her arms in front of herself as she scowled. “People will think we are poor if we wear the same gowns again. Is that what you would have the ton think?”
Arthur sat up straighter and rolled his eyes. He opened his mouth to answer but snapped it shut as though choking back some insult.
“Why don’t you wear something of Ellie’s?” he asked, gesturing to where Eleanor sat at the far end of the table. “She’s got no use for those things. See if there’s something in her wardrobe that will do.”
Prudence and Gertrude turned their heads in unison and gave her identical sneers of derision.
“She wouldn’t have anything worth wearing to scour the pots in the kitchen,” Prudence said haughtily. “Besides, even if she did have something worth being seen in, it would never fit our delicate frames.”
Eleanor quickly took a bite of the coarse bread she’d baked the night before, cramming in the small nibble before she could say something hurtful. She had learned in those early days of her cousins’ arrival that it did her no good to forget her place now that Arthur was Earl in her father’s stead.
But that didn’t prevent her thoughts from frolicking in her mind.
Delicate frames? Eleanor thought, concealing a smirk behind another nibble. I’ve seen cows in the field who were more likely to fall over in a windstorm than these two.
She shook off the unkind thought at once, somewhat alarmed at the way her mind could turn to insult. It wasn’t as if Prudence and Gertrude didn’t deserve every horrible jeer, but Eleanor had never been that sort of person. It saddened her to know that this was only one of many things that had changed at Witherton after Arthur had arrived with his family in tow.
His very first order of business had been to practically erase Eleanor’s family from the great house. The portraits had been removed to the attic, but thankfully the servants had taken the pains to display them on the walls so that Eleanor might come up and see them from time to time. The sisters had attempted to change the décor, but Arthur had refused to spend so much as a penny on things like drapes or sofas when the ones in the house were still quite serviceable.
The rooms had been the next to be swapped. Arthur took her father’s chambers, as was expected, but Gertrude had decided that Eleanor’s own room had a better view of the park. Prudence, who had only come to London with her brother in order to attend social events, had no desire to see the city from her window. Therefore, she had insisted on taking Rose’s room.
Eleanor and Rose now shared the nursery, which actually suited them quite well. They could pass a great many of their waking hours in near-solitude, away from the constant grumbling from Arthur or the screeching of his sisters.
“Ellie, this bread is far too dense to eat,” Prudence said, jarring Eleanor from her thoughts. She lifted her chin and looked down at her from the other end of the table. “Next time, take care to do a better job.”
“I shall do my best. I’m not much of a steady hand at baking, I’m afraid,” Eleanor said, trying to sound apologetic but most likely failing.
That had been the very next change: Arthur had dismissed most of the servants, leaving only the sparest of a staff to run the entirety of Witherton. He had kept the position of butler but replaced Mr. Keyes with someone younger and less personable. He had done away with a housekeeper altogether, piling a number of her duties on Eleanor.
“You will need to earn your way around here,” Arthur had said while Prudence and Gertrude had smiled viciously. “It won’t hurt you any to show your gratitude by alleviating some of the burden your father left.”
“Burden? What do you mean?” Eleanor had demanded angrily before she could stop herself.
“He was nearly destitute,” Arthur answered, a corner of his mouth rising up in a smile when Eleanor flinched.
“But that cannot be true! I helped Father with his records myself, he had a number of accounts and sources of income,” Eleanor had protested.
“Ah, well. That explains why things are in such terrible straits. Letting a mere girl aid you in your financial dealings is a certain path to ruin. Still, as the case may be, we will have to make do until I can work on restoring prosperity to this house. That means we will all have to sacrifice, and you must do your part.”
Though Eleanor was left reeling from Arthur’s revelation, her heart broke to see their staff leave one by one. They had been so dear to her, the people who had helped to look after her when her mother had died or when her father had been called away. They had seen her through some of the best and worst times of her life, and she was fearful of what may befall them without their employment.
Arthur had refused to issue them letters to recommend them to other employers—“Why would I be dismissing them if they were excellent servants? Surely everyone will think it is because we are nearly penniless!” he’d protested—but Eleanor’s first act of defiance against her cousin’s will was to write them letters herself.
“I don’t know what good these will do you as I am now nothing but a burdensome spinster, but at least you will have something to show another family,” Eleanor had whispered softly as she passed around their letters before telling them goodbye.
Her duties were trivial at first, namely placing orders with the butcher or at the market, ensuring there was ample coal—but not too much—in the cellar, or taking care to order enough feed for the two remaining horses that Arthur kept out of her father’s stable of ten. Soon, it also grew to encompass kitchen duties, though that was largely her own doing since Mrs. Benefield no longer had anyone to help in the scullery. Eventually, Eleanor was also helping the one remaining maid to change the linens, do the washing, stoke the fires and clean out the ash, and more.
“But Arthur, could we not at least host a ball this year? We haven’t done that since the first year we arrived at Witherton,” Gertrude pleaded, her voice slightly less grating now that she was begging for her brother to do something she wanted.
“Have you gone mad? Do you know what such an event would cost me?” Arthur demanded, coughing loudly as he choked on a crumb of his toast in surprise.
“But think of all the ways it could help you,” Prudence added knowingly. “Imagine this house filled to overflowing with the right sorts of people from the ton. Why, with the men adjourning for cards and brandy, there is no end to the business connections you could make.”
“That’s what I have White’s for, for all the good it does me. All that money thrown at being a part of those scoundrels’ inner circle, and not one of them has invested when I’ve offered,” he growled, sopping up some egg with his bread.
“That’s because they don’t know you,” Gertrude explained patiently, trying to smile, but Prudence interrupted.
That’s because you enjoy gambling at the horse races all day, Eleanor thought but didn’t dare say.
“How do you think Gertie and I feel, huh?” Prudence demanded, slapping her open palm on the table and causing the silver to clatter. “We moved all the way to this rat-hole of a city in order to be in the thick of all the goings-on, yet you won’t host so much as an afternoon tea. The only invitations that ever arrive are for that mouse over there, and even those are becoming rare these days because you won’t permit us to accept them!”
“Mother sent us with you so that we might find husbands of wealth and title, and you’ve not lifted a finger to make that happen for us. You’ve practically kept us as your prisoners without so much as a single offer of marriage,” Gertrude reminded him, and Arthur finally let his head fall to his hands as though weary of such bickering at an early hour.
“And where am I to find dowries for the pair of you, huh? Answer me that.”
“Ellie surely must have had one, if not that invalid girl she’s always pushing about in the garden,” Prudence said.
Three pairs of eyes fixed their gaze on Eleanor, who sat meekly eating her breakfast while their argument had raged on. Now, they pinned her back under their scrutiny, leaving her feeling very much like a fox trembling before the hounds.
“Is that so, Ellie?” Arthur asked, his voice low and ominous.
“I wouldn’t know,” Eleanor answered honestly, shaking her head. “You are the one who controls all of the accounts, all of the funds. Besides, had he lived, my father would have handled those matters, not I. Why would I have anything to do with a dowry?”
“But you do have things that can fetch a price, don’t you?” Gertrude accused. “I’ve been in your room. I know you keep a box that is locked with a key. What’s in it, cousin?”
“Only a few baubles that belonged to my mother and my grandmothers, but nothing of value, I promise,” she answered, hoping she sounded sincere.
“Bring them to me after breakfast,” Arthur commanded. “I will decide if they are valuable or not.”
“But those were given to me by my family. You cannot take them,” Eleanor argued before she could stop herself.
“And they are my property now, as are you, so you will do as I say,” he shot back.
Eleanor ignored the smug looks on the horrible sisters’ faces as she lowered her gaze. She was no longer hungry, but she didn’t dare leave the table before them without an excuse.
“I’ll go and bring Rose her tray now,” she mumbled after a few minutes of painful silence, standing and taking her dishes with her.
“Then hurry back and clean up the rest of the table,” Gertrude called after her before the door swung closed.
Determined not to let their hatefulness infect her breakfast with Rose, Eleanor brushed off their remarks as she hurried downstairs to assemble a tray. She opened a cupboard in the larder where she’d hidden the delicious bread she’d made specifically for her sister, then slid back a concealed panel and removed the butter she’d churned from fresh cream a farmer’s wife had brought by. She added to this two eggs that she cooked on the stove—left hot by the cook despite Arthur’s insistence that no fires be lit before the midday meal—and added a small mug of buttermilk as well. She covered the whole tray with a cloth and took the servants’ stairs to avoid running into anyone who might covet such a fine breakfast.
“Good day, Rose,” Eleanor said cheerfully as she opened the door to their room.
Rose’s eager smile belied the weakness she felt at all times, and seeing it made Eleanor feel guilty. Who was she to complain or grouse about the cumbersome cousins when she had strength in her body that her sister had never been allowed to enjoy?
“Eleanor! I’m so glad you’re here. I had the most wonderful dream,” Rose began. She started to sit up but stopped when Eleanor put down the tray to help her.
“I cannot wait to hear about it, but be quick about eating this breakfast before any of the others happens to come in.”
“They never come in here,” Rose reminded her, smiling in a conspiratorial way. “It grieves them to no end to be stuck with a sickly invalid in the family, and the less they have to see of me, the better.”
“That’s not why,” Eleanor answered automatically, but she knew her sister spoke the truth. “Still, we don’t want to chance them finding out that I saved the very best of the bread and eggs for you. They’ll all want some then!”
Rose laughed and began to take slow bites of her breakfast while Eleanor told her some funny stories. Soon enough, even Eleanor’s cheerful spirits began to fade as she watched her sister.
She’s but seventeen! Eleanor thought angrily. She should be pining for a new gown like Gertrude or Prudence, begging Arthur to host a ball… not lying in her room all day and watching the world from her window.
Just as her misery at the unfairness of it all began to pull her down, Eleanor looked over at Rose’s happy but thin face. Her worries ceased, if only for a little while, and she couldn’t help but feel glad for how much Rose had eaten.
“So why haven’t you married?” Rose asked suddenly, stunning Eleanor.
“Rose! You cannot simply ask such a thing of a young lady!” Still, she laughed in spite of her shock.
“Why not? We’re sisters. It’s not as though we can’t discuss these matters. Besides, it was all part of my dream. You met a wonderful man, and he asked you to marry him!”
“Oh my, I hope he was handsome and kind,” Eleanor teased, raising her eyebrows as she laughed. “Even better, perhaps he was a prince who wanted us to live in his castle!”
“No, he was your employer,” Rose said evenly as she chewed her bread.
“I beg your pardon? Now I know you’re teasing. I don’t have an employer, though that idea sounds more and more appealing with each passing day.”
“So why don’t you find an occupation?” Rose suggested, as though the idea were the simplest thing in the world.
“And have the greedy earl take my wages? No, thank you,” Eleanor declared. “If I’m going to work in someone’s house for no pay, at least it shall be my own house where I lay my head. Besides, what would I even do?”
“You’re very smart and good with numbers and languages. You could be a governess.”
“A fine idea, but then who would take care of you?”
Rose shrugged. “It’s not as though I need all that much tending. I’m content to sit here and read the books you bring me from the library. I’m sure Mrs. Benefield would bring me some scraps once a day.”
“Don’t be a goose. I could never allow that to happen,” Eleanor said, trying to smile as though her sister’s words were only spoken in jest. “I will always look after you, Rose. You know that.”
“But you shouldn’t have to,” she protested with a thin smile. “There’s no sense in both of us being miserable here, not when you could go out into the world and make your way of it. You could marry and have children of your own. And who knows, perhaps then I could visit you someday?”
“Rose, where is all this coming from?” Eleanor asked, incredulous. “Have you been reading those melancholy novels again?”
Rose shook her head, though she laughed. “No, not even those books are as sad as our lives seem at times.”
Eleanor busied herself with tidying up Rose’s tray and helping to brush the crumbs from her lap. She opened the window and scattered the crumbs on the sill so that birds might visit to gobble them up, something that broke up the monotony of Rose’s bleak day. Then she covered the tray once more with a cloth and went to the door.
“Everything is all right, isn’t it?” Eleanor asked, a look of concern darkening her features.
“Certainly!” Rose replied a little too brightly. “It’s just… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cross. My dream was just so real, so wonderful. I wanted it to be true.”
“As do I, dear Rose. But we must remember that we are far better off than so many other people. What is a bit of sacrifice and boredom compared to the suffering that a great many others endure?”
“You’re right. I only needed reminding,” Rose said quietly, looking down at her lap.
“Don’t be put out. As soon as I finish my chores, I’ll come back up, and we’ll play cards for a while. All right?”
Eleanor shut the door behind her and grimaced. Suffering, indeed! Where was the fairness, the justice? It wasn’t fair that Rose had been born with her spine so twisted that she could barely stand, nor that their mother had died in the process. And, of course, the pain of losing Father was just as raw as ever. How could she put that grief aside when every day her cousins found new ways to torment and belittle her?
“Griffin? Do you have all you need?” his mother asked, her question jarring him from his thoughts.
“What’s that? Oh. Yes, Mother,” he answered with a forced smile, looking up from the newspaper that he was holding. It was only a prop, really, an excuse to ignore the grating conversation taking place.
“Very good,” she said before turning back to her visitors and resuming their talk.
Griffin tried to tune out the intense jabbering of the guests, but it was a nearly impossible feat. His mother had been becoming more and more hard of hearing for the past several years, to the point that even her closest companions nearly had to shout to make themselves heard.
You’re being unkind, you dolt, he thought as he shook out his newspaper and pretended to read again. And though their gossip and laughter were enough to set his teeth on edge, Griffin knew he should feel grateful. Other than her waning hearing and the fact that her eyesight was quickly deteriorating, his mother was otherwise in good health for someone her age. Plenty of his friends no longer had their mothers or had lost them even as children, while still others were saddled with decrepit, bitter harpies for mothers; unhappy old crones who made everyone around them miserable.
On the contrary, Maryanne Ayers was the bright spot in his day. Always doting, always supportive, always quick to offer a kind word or a gentle piece of advice, she was beloved by so many people. Yet with her failing sight and difficulty understanding others, her visitors were becoming less frequent. That’s why Griffin insisted on making any visit into a small occasion, joining them so that they knew the Duke of Stockton had received them personally.
“Your Grace,” one of the women said in an overly loud voice, clearly addressing him but intending that his mother could hear her as well, “I was just reading a letter from my sister last week. Her daughter will be coming to London this Season and staying with me. I shall have to introduce the two of you.”
Griffin plastered a smile in place and nodded. “Thank you, Lady Echols. I look forward to it.”
After an almost scheming smile that gave him a brief quiver of fear, the woman turned her attention back to his mother. Inwardly, though, he seethed; was there but one topic of conversation among all women of the ton? Marriage to an eligible duke?
After Lady Echols and her gaggle of geese had gone, Griffin helped his mother up the stairs to her room, her vigor having been all but spent in entertaining her guests. They climbed together slowly, the old woman clutching his elbow with one hand and the banister with the other.
“My apologies, Griffin, I know how you despise having guests,” his mother said, sounding slightly winded.
“That is not even remotely true, Mother,” he answered lightly. “I’m delighted to have your friends come to call on you. I know how much happiness it brings you to hear about the comings and goings.”
“It’s a shame that only Lady Echols seems to be the most steadfast of my friends. I try not to feel ungrateful about it, but it feels as though most of my other friends are either dead or unwilling to pass the morning shouting so an old woman might hear them.”
“Mother, you have a great deal of people who care about you. It is only that Lady Echols has the time to spend here,” Griffin promised. “If you want to see more people, I can always host something more formal, you know, and invite anyone you please.”
“Oh, there’s no need to go to the trouble. Besides, all of the wonderful sorts of events happen so late in the evening. I fear I would nod off in my chair and embarrass myself with my snoring!” his mother said, laughing in a self-deprecating way.
Griffin hated how relieved he felt. Attending social events was bad enough when it was a necessity, but actually hosting one and having countless people meandering about in his home was downright distressing. Still, he would do it for his mother’s sake if it brought her even an ounce of happiness.
“But Lady Echols did bring up something rather interesting,” she continued, climbing another stair and then shuffling her feet along the landing. “I would be quite pleased if you would meet this niece of hers.”
And there it is, he thought, his earlier disdain creeping to the surface again.
“Would this niece not be far older than I am, given that she is your friend’s close relation?” Griffin asked, trying to be humorous while moving the subject away from eligible young ladies. “After all, I remember hearing many times over the years that I was something of a surprise when I made my appearance in the world.”
His mother laughed in surprise at his statement, and Griffin smiled warmly. It was good to hear the happiness in her voice, even if it might be fleeting.
“I was rather old to be a mother again,” she confessed, patting his hand. “But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. After years of nothing but daughters filling this house, I was overjoyed to finally give your father a son. He’d all but given up hope, you know!”
Griffin laughed in turn, but the sentiment was somewhat hollow. He’d only known his father for a few short years before the man had passed, a byproduct of his even more advanced age. Still, the memories he had were all good ones, years of being doted on by a proud father and adoring sisters.
“And that is precisely what I do not want for you,” his mother continued, her tone serious now. “I do not wish for you to marry for my own selfish want of grandchildren. Heaven knows, if that was my only desire, your sisters have more than fulfilled that hope for me. But I want you to marry so that you might have a family and enjoy it as your father did, and not pass on so shortly after siring an heir.”
“Mother, this is hardly something we need to discuss. I will marry when I meet the right person,” he assured her, rolling his eyes and then remembering to be thankful that she couldn’t see that.
“I disagree. I think it’s a rather poignant conversation. I would be greatly relieved to know that you are married and happy. After all, your father waited such a long time to marry that he was quite old to be a new husband.”
“I should think that made him a more patient husband and father, don’t you?” Griffin asked, genuinely interested in her opinion.
“Perhaps,” she admitted, “but it also meant there were quite a few things that he did not do with his children. He couldn’t teach you to ride, for example, and he had no strength for travel anymore. Is that what you want for your children?”
“Of course not. But I dare think I shouldn’t worry about children before I’ve sought a wife. It’s frowned upon, from what I hear.”
“This is no small matter, Griffin. You should choose a wife who will make you happy, but you should seek to have children fairly soon. Your house only stands so long as there is a Stockton at the gate.”
And there it is again, Griffin thought as they climbed the last stair. Titles, fortunes, a family name, all of that rested on his shoulders, whether he desired it or not.
“Mother, you have nothing to worry about,” Griffin assured her as he escorted her to her door and opened it for her. “You know that should something unfortunate happen to me, Beatrice’s son will rightfully serve as my heir.”
“Under our letters patent, yes. But this direct family line has not been broken since the inception of this dukedom,” she reminded him gently, looking up at his face with her cloudy eyes. “There is no reason to break it for want of a wife. I know these sorts of matters may not be so significant to the younger generation, but I do not want you to look back with regret over the wasted, empty years.”
“I promise you, I will regret nothing,” he said confidently, taking her hands and squeezing them gently. “Go to your rest, and I will join you later for dinner.”
Griffin turned away as the door closed behind her, trudging down the stairs as though burdened by a great weight. In truth, it was a terrible burden—the expectations of hundreds of years of men who’d come before him, all heaped on his shoulders by his mother’s love.
It wasn’t as though he was averse to marriage. In fact, the opposite was true. Griffin was so eager to replicate the love he had known all his life that he couldn’t imagine marrying some “appropriate” young lady whose mother had thrown her before a duke to improve her family’s station. Though he had been young, he still remembered the love his father had for his mother; at the same time, he wasn’t sure his mother had ever finished grieving for his father. That was the sort of devotion that he sought, and nothing less would do.
But first, there are other matters of far more importance, Griffin thought as he looked out the front window to the enormous town square in the distance. My mother must be happy, sooner rather than later.
The next morning, Eleanor made sure Mrs. Benefield had everything she needed to prepare breakfast, then carried up the food herself. She left everything on the sideboard in the dining room, then slipped out the back door in the kitchen. After ensuring no one was lurking about at the nearly empty stable behind the house, she tiptoed around the side of the immense building and skirted through the half-open front gate, hoping the hinges weren’t loud enough to alert anyone.
Eleanor scurried away as quickly as she could, just to be out of sight of the house. While not entirely a prisoner in the home, she didn’t wish to be seen. That would lead to questions, and her cousins would surely be able to see through her lies until she confessed everything.
She’d never been very good at deception.
It was quite a long walk to reach her destination, but she managed it with the hasty map that the maid had drawn for her. Eleanor found herself walking the sorts of streets she had never visited before, and it was both thrilling and somewhat frightening to be in this strange part of London.
Finally, she looked up and found her destination: a registry office for servants.
Eleanor took a deep breath and let it out slowly, steeling herself for the encounter within. She knew she could never pass herself off as a qualified servant with references and experience, so the most she could hope for was that the agent might take pity on her and help her find something suitable. She did have some experience, though, thanks to Arthur’s poor treatment of her.
“Can I be of help to you, miss?” a stern-faced older woman called out from her stool behind a high desk.
“Yes, madam,” Eleanor answered, stepping closer. “I’ve come to seek a position in service.”
“Have you now? Do you have any references?”
Eleanor shook her head. “I’m afraid not. But I do have experience.”
“Experience without references isn’t worth too much, girlie. Who did you do this work for?” she asked, holding her pen poised over a ledger book.
“I’d rather not say,” Eleanor began, hesitating. At an even sterner look from the woman, she added, “The family does not know I intend to seek another position.”
“Ah, I see. That does complicate things a bit, but I’ll see what I can do. So what sorts of work have you done?”
Eleanor began to list her duties in Arthur’s house—My house, she thought bitterly—and felt a pink flush of heat creep up to her cheeks as she made the responsibilities seem a little more important than they were.
“But I am actually quite well educated, so I was hoping you had something available for a governess,” she ended by saying.
“Oh, dear me, no. You don’t want to do that,” the agent said, clucking her tongue sadly. “There’s no money it. Most families don’t pay their governesses much of anything—barely an allowance to keep clothes on their backs. There’s simply too many educated young ladies from fallen families who need lodging and care. Even if I had a girl with the proper sort of skills, I wouldn’t send her out to be a governess. No, not me! I don’t believe in working for your bread. If you’re going to do an honest day’s work, you’ll get an honest day’s wages!”
Eleanor smiled, somewhat relieved to hear that. She’d been right to trust the maid and only go to this registry office.
“Now then, I have only a few positions that might suit you,” the woman continued. “The first is a lady’s maid for a good family, though not one I know all that well.”
“That might be just the thing,” Eleanor said, feeling overly hopeful.
“Some family… let me see, I just took it down yesterday evening after I got word of it… ah yes. Bancroft.”
Eleanor thought she might faint. She pressed a hand to her middle and sought a proper reply.
“I don’t think that will suit me,” she whispered. “As a matter of fact, that is my employer. Not nice people at all.”
“Is that so?” the woman asked, her eyes growing wide. “Pray, don’t tell me that the master of the house is…”
She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively, but Eleanor couldn’t decipher her meaning.
“He doesn’t attempt to take liberties with his staff, does he?” she clarified in a low voice.
“Oh no. Nothing like that,” Eleanor said, blushing a deep crimson. “Just that the family are very hard to please and take delight in tormenting people who are beneath them.”
“I see. Then I think I shall steer clear of sending any of my prospects that way. Thank you for telling me. Now then, I also have a request for a scullery maid to start this evening.”
“This evening?” Eleanor cried. “So soon?”
“That’s usually the way of it, dearie. Most families, especially the good ones, tend to always be on the lookout for a new member of the staff. If you find a position, it’s best to snap it up like a fish after a worm.”
“That doesn’t give me much time,” Eleanor began, looking worried as her thoughts raced. What would she do with Rose? “Not much time to give my notice, that is.”
“I see. I do like a worker who knows the proper way of things, and giving your notice is important. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but be mindful of this: if you leave without notice, the family will keep a month’s wages.”
A month? Eleanor thought, horrified. Still, she nodded. What other choice did she have?
“Well then, I have one other position that might fit you,” the woman continued, flipping through her pages until she found a small piece of paper. She pulled it out and read it over silently, nodding thoughtfully as she did. “Yes. I was keeping this one for someone I know well enough to recommend, but she hasn’t replied to my letters. Here is a position for a housekeeper, but it won’t start for nearly three weeks.”
“That should be ample time,” Eleanor said before quickly adding, “To give my notice, that is.”
“Very good then. I’ll send word that I’ve got a young woman for the position, and they will surely wish to conduct an interview before you start. I’ll send word to you when I know the date and time you should report for it. Sign here,” the woman said, sliding a half-slip of paper across her desk. “This contract informs you that your wages come to me for the first three months, and I will pay you after I deduct my fee. After that time, the household will pay you directly, and all your wages are yours to keep.”
“I understand, that’s more than fair.”
“The only other thing I must say to you is this: if you cause any harm to my reputation for recommending you, I won’t be recommending you again. And I’ll keep your last payment in full for the damage you’ve caused. So, know your place and tread carefully, and best of luck to you.”
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