Four Years Later...
“That is her, the Duchess of Tradegrove, the one almost killed by the Dowager Marchioness of Blinddale. Remember? Frightful story.”
“Oh la, I heard all about it. She killed the first Duchess, too, didn’t she? Dreadful. Now this one, she’s the one who was raised in the orphanage, yes? The one who was a teacher here?”
“Indeed. A stroke of luck to marry someone like the Duke of Tradegrove. And the one beside her is the new headmistress, I believe. The one with the mute husband.”
“What strange company the Duke is keeping these days.”
The voices came from behind them and fell silent the moment Lucretia turned around. The two ladies who had gossiped about her only a moment ago sat silently and nodded their heads in her direction in a respectful manner. She had seen them before, at Almack’s in London, as well as at a few dances, but she could not recall their names.
Benedict would certainly know, however, she could not ask him for he was presently occupied with tying a large red ribbon around the stairwell banister which led to the newly renovated upstairs classrooms. On the other side of the stairs, Lord Winterton was doing the same.
“I cannot believe we forgot to tie the ribbon. It’s the whole reason we are here, so I can cut it,” Mary grumbled beside her. Lucretia patted her friend’s hand which was clutching a crumpled up piece of paper.
“Do not fret. So much planning was needed to make this day come to pass, a silly little ribbon should be the last of our worries. Besides, we have handsome help,” she pointed to the front with her chin and shifted once more in her seat.
The wooden chairs were much more uncomfortable than she remembered, or perhaps it was due to the fact that she was heavy with child, only weeks from the birth of their second baby. These days she found it difficult to get comfortable anywhere but her lovely, large four-poster bed at home at Amberley Manor.
“Are you feeling well enough? Perhaps coming all this way was not a good idea after all, Lucy,” Mary said, fright in her voice.
“Don’t be silly, I am quite well. And I would not miss this for the world. The opening of our school. Mary, you, the headmistress of Mrs. Doringcourt’s school! Who could have ever imagined such a thing?”
The two young women beamed at one another. This day had been long in the making. What had started out as a silly daydream only two years ago was now a reality. It was amazing and frightening all at once.
Lucretia remembered what had started it all vividly. In the middle of the busy London Season, Lucretia and Mary had decided to take Henry and the two Winterton children to Bath, for Henry had expressed an interest in seeing the old school the two women so often spoke of.
What had started as a joyous trip with Lucretia’s stepson and Mary’s charges, had soon taken an unpleasant turn when they saw the state the formerly beautiful school was in. Abandoned since the closure of the school, it had fallen into disrepair. Much of the furniture had been stolen and it was evident that passing vagrants had made it their temporary home. Dismayed, the two women had lamented the state of their old home.
Lucretia had contemplated the building’s fate for much of the Season, commenting to Benedict about what a shame it was that such a building should stand empty when there were so many children who could benefit from a place of learning.
It was then, during that conversation, that an idea was born. An idea that was now becoming a reality.
With a large investment from Benedict, Lord Winterton, and some charitable members of the ton, they had purchased the old building and created, “Mrs. Doringcourt’s School for Exceptional Students.” A school run by Mary and William, who had moved to Bath for that very purpose. Thanks to the endowments of their rich benefactors, the school would serve those, young and old alike, who could not otherwise afford a good education.
In addition to the school, Mary and Lucretia had set aside rooms for young women who found themselves in a dire situation, just like they once had. They would be kept from going to the poorhouse and instead work at the school until they could find employment.
It had been a daunting task, to build up the school, to plan it all, especially as both Mary and Lucretia had given birth to their first children in the middle of it all.
But now the day was finally here. The day the school would open its doors to the public.
Lucretia sighed as the baby stirred and kicked. She moaned under her breath and placed a hand on her rounded stomach when her attention was drawn toward the front door, where more guests entered.
She turned and surveyed the crowd. Chairs had been set up all along the wide hall where she’d once roamed when she was herself a young teacher. They had placed one hundred chairs in the hall and most of them were already taken.
“Oh la. There are so many people,” Mary said, as she followed Lucretia’s gaze. Suddenly, she paled and clasped Lucretia’s hand. “Lucy, I can’t do it! I can’t stand up before all these people. I shall faint.”
“You will not. You have spoken in front of classrooms full of young girls before. This is just like that, only more crowded. And you only need to say a few words before cutting the ribbon.”
Panic rose in Mary’s eyes. “No, Lucy these are important people. Many of them are in the House of Lords. Many have given us support. If I make a cake of myself in front of them the school will close before it ever opens.”
Lucretia let go of Mary’s hand. “Come, let us take the air for a moment.” She pushed herself up from the chair with some difficulty.
“My dear. Let me help you,” Benedict exclaimed and rushed to her, reaching her the moment she was back on her feet.
“I am still able to stand up, my love. But thank you for taking such good care of me, and little love.” She placed her hand on her bump again and rubbed it gently.
“You are my dearest treasure, both of you are,” Benedict said with a smile before returning to the staircase.
“Now, come,” Lucretia said to Mary. Together they walked into the garden, where William was presently examining the tables that had been set up for this afternoon’s luncheon.
Lucretia spotted Molly and her sister Maggie, rushing about between the chairs, as well as several other servants from both Amberley Manor and Marmoth Castle. Molly, like Lucretia, was with child, although hers was not due for some time. She’d married Thomas, the footman, the previous summer and would soon have a little cousin to join Maggie’s boy, Ben, who was thriving.
The sisters were placing fresh bouquets of flowers, as well as fine cutlery, on all the tables, ready for the meal which was presently being prepared in the school’s kitchen by Lord Winterton’s cooks.
“Do you remember how young and scared we were when we first arrived, Mary?” Lucretia asked her friend as they made their way around the garden.
Mary nodded, “I do. I was ever so frightened.”
“And now you are to be headmistress.”
Mary sighed. “I am not so certain I will make a good headmistress. I wish you were the headmistress, just like Mrs. Doringcourt was planning.”
Lucretia smiled, remembering the conversation she’d had with her mentor.
“Dearest Mary, it was never meant for me. I enjoy teaching but I would never have made a good headmistress. I am much too unorganized to run a school. Faith, I still struggle with the running of Amberley. I am truly blessed to have Betsy by my side to help me. But you, you were born for this.”
Mary blushed and looked around the garden and up toward the second floor which had been converted to house the new classrooms for the day and evening classes and to house the young ladies in need.
“Oh, Lucy, I am ever so glad you thought of the idea to provide rooms for young women like us. I remember how terrified I was at the thought of the poorhouse.”
Lucretia nodded, shuddering at the memory of those few weeks they’d spent in fear of being without a place to go.
“Indeed. No girl in Bath shall have to worry as we did, not as long as we can help it. Keep that thought in your mind when you stand to cut the ribbon. Forget who they are, what their station in life is. Think of all the children that will come through our school and receive the education they were previously denied. And all the adults who will finally be able to learn to read and write.”
“I shall, Lucy.”
Just then, William rushed over toward them and motioned to go back inside.
“It is time, headmistress,” Lucretia said as they walked back to the hall. Almost every seat was now taken and Lord Winterton stood at the front, addressing them all in his familiar, boisterous style. When he spotted them, he waved at them.
“While I certainly would love to claim that this wonderful school was my idea, I cannot. Indeed, it was neither mine nor the Duke’s idea but that of two former teachers. One you all known as our beloved Duchess of Tradegrove,” he bowed into her direction and she nodded as the eyes of the assorted guests turned toward her. She smiled and nodded all around, acknowledging them while breaking into a sweat.
Beside her, Mary squirmed on her behalf, aware just how much Lucretia disliked being the center of attention and how out of place she felt at these functions.
While the upper class had grown to accept her, she knew Lady Blinddale had been right about one thing: She would never truly be a part of them. She’d always be the one they whispered about, as the two ladies had done only minutes ago. However, as Benedict had predicted, due to his sister’s villainous actions, the ton had been rather gentle with her, even though she’d married up, something frowned upon, especially for her class.
And yet, I will never truly be one of them and I must admit, I have no desire to. I attend the balls, the diners, the house parties because I want to support Benedict. Yet, to this day, I feel more comfortable around Betsy and Mary than I do those who are now considered my equals.
“You are deep in thought, my love,” Benedict’s voice sounded beside her. She turned and found he’d snuck up on her and Mary.
“I was simply considering how much my life has changed and that I am still at heart very much the girl I was when I lived here. Even though now I am a Duchess.”
“It is one of the things I love most about you. That you are true to yourself, that you remain who you are no matter what, and you do not change yourself for anyone. You are who you are, no matter the title or circumstance. Just my beloved, kind, determined Lucretia.”
She discreetly placed her hand on his back and caressed him while up ahead, Lord Winterton continued his speech.
“The Duchess is not the only one who conceived the idea of this school. The other, I am pleased to say, will in a moment open this magnificent school for business. Please welcome Mrs. William Hargrove.”
The two women exchanged one last encouraging smile and then Mary made her way to the front. She unfolded the small speech she’d written, read it off the crumpled piece of paper with confidence and then, to the applause of the guests, took the scissors from her husband’s hand and cut the ribbon.
The ribbon cut, Winterton stepped forward once more.
“Now, Your Graces, my fellow Lords, and esteemed Ladies, I know I am absolutely famished from this strenuous speech-giving I’ve engaged in this day. I say we all proceed to the garden to eat.”
The crowd of assorted Lords and Ladies clapped at the prospect of the upcoming meal and they slowly made their way outside. The servants were lined up, ready to serve the luncheon.
While most guests made their way to the tables on the lawn, Lucretia saw Mary and William being cornered by Lady Manchester, the woman Lady Blinddale had claimed she would introduce Lucretia to that fateful day.
As she had come to learn, Lady Manchester, unlike her heinous friend, was a kind woman who had personally invested a large sum of money into the renovation of the school. However, she did share Lady Blinddale’s love for meddling. Lucretia was certain that her friends were currently receiving ever more unsolicited advice.
“Would it be quite terrible if I asked you to take the air, away from the crowds, and we left Mary and William to handle the spectators?” Benedict asked quietly.
“I think they can manage. They do have the help of Winterton, after all,” Lucretia replied with a grin. In fact, Winterton was already on his way to rescue them and join in the conversation.
Benedict escorted Lucretia toward the front of the building and they found themselves on the sidewalk outside. They strolled along the building and toward the little park at the end of the street.
“Lady Manchester has been most excited to meet with Mary and William,” Benedict said.
“Has she? More excellent advice, I imagine?”
“Indeed, thus this advice may actually be welcome.”
She turned her head to one side, curious to hear more.
“She had learned of a new method of communication for the deaf. It is being taught at the school for the deaf in Bermondsey. It is called the combined system. She was rather excited about it and wants Mary and William to learn it, to ease William’s ability to communicate, and then to teach it to other deaf and mute students.”
Lucretia’s eyes widened.
“That is a wonderful idea. It would help William so much. Oh Benedict, we too should learn it.”
“We shall,” he agreed as they crossed the street toward the park. Benedict guided her toward a bench and helped her sit. She sighed heavily, wiping her forehead with a handkerchief.
“I am sorry you are in such discomfort,” Benedict said as he sat beside her.
“It will not be for very much longer, my dear. And then we will have another healthy baby to join our family.” She felt herself suddenly overcome with sadness. “I only wish Henry were home, I miss him so.”
Benedict nodded. “As do I. Although it is best for him to receive an education at Eton. And by all accounts, he is thriving.”
“He is, his last letter sounded as though he is not missing us at all.”
Benedict chuckled, “It did. Well, we can take comfort in knowing that it is not just our son who appears not to be missing home at all. Winterton reported he had a similar letter from Horace.”
This was the first year Henry was being educated away from home. Both he and his friend Horace had joined Eton at the start of the school year and Lucretia found it difficult to adjust to him being away. She had to admit, she’d planned to propose he be educated at the new school, fortunately, he appeared to enjoy his time at Eton, causing her to abandon the idea.
“We shall bring him home for a few days when the baby is born,” Benedict promised.
Their son, George, had been born two years prior and Henry had taken to the role of big brother with ease and enthusiasm. So enchanted had he been with his new baby brother that he had rarely left his side, always eagerly awaiting time with the baby. The thought of him coming home to meet the new child cheered her some.
Home. How strange that only a few short years ago, Amberley Manor was nothing but a place to find respite after the loss of Mrs. Doringcourt. Yet now it is my home. My beloved home.
She remembered how the portraits of the women that resembled Helena had intimidated and confused her. She had to admit, she’d found it strange, looking at reminders of Benedict’s late wife, even after their wedding.
Perhaps sensing her discomfort, Benedict had one day moved the portraits from the hall to the attic room that had once been Helena’s sanctuary. Paintings of their family, carefully created by Biasi, had taken their place over time.
On occasion, Benedict would take Henry to the attic. Even though the portraits were not really of her, they were still a way to connect the boy to the mother he’d never known. Benedict would tell him stories about Helena, about the life they once had. Even though Henry’s mother was gone, both Benedict and Lucretia made sure she was a part of the boy’s life as he grew up.
Henry. How much she’d grown to love him. Even though she had not carried him, she felt as though he was her own child.
“It will be wonderful to have him home.” She placed her head on Benedict’s shoulder. “I had a thought about a name for her.”
“Her?” He glanced down at Lucretia, a smile on his handsome face.
“I feel certain we shall have a girl this time. And I would like to name her Eleonore.”
“Eleonore?” Benedict frowned at the choice.
Lucretia sat up and turned to face her husband.
“It was the name of Mrs. Doringcourt. If it weren’t for her taking me in from the orphanage and teaching me so much, I never would have found employment at Amberley. She taught me to never forget my worth. I believe without her advice, without her guidance, I would have been quite lost.”
Benedict kissed her forehead. “It is a lovely name and a lovely tribute. I shall forever be grateful to her for all she has done for you.” He paused, then cleared his throat. “How about Elizabeth for a middle name? After your cousin?”
Lucretia’s eye grew wide. “Betsy will be delighted.”
“After all, she played as much a part in us finding one another as Mrs. Doringcourt.” He shook his head. “To think that the cousin in need of employment she told me about would become my wife.” He looked at Lucretia, his eyes full of tenderness. “To think that she would be the one to draw me out of my darkness, to bring back the light to my life.” He stroked her cheek. “You have been such a blessing for me, my love.”
They sat, their heads leaning against one another as the spring breeze fluttered through the trees around them.
“And you to me, Benedict. As difficult as our journey was, we made it through and found each other.”
“We did.” He cupped her face. “And I will never lose you again, my light.”
He leaned forward and found her lips, kissing her as though it was the very first time. When he pulled back, they gazed at one another for a moment before he broke the spell.
“Let us return to the school. We will be missed.”
He helped her get up and they returned to the building which meant so much to Lucretia.
He opened the door and held it for her. As she passed him and stepped into the hall, he called her name. When she looked back, he smiled at her widely, his eyes filled with love.
“I love you, Lucretia.”
She felt her heart fill with happiness as she replied.
“And I love you.”
He followed her inside and the door closed behind him. He reached for her hand and they walked, fingers entwined, toward the garden and into the next chapter of their life. Together.
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