About the book
True love isn't found, it's built...
Talented button maker Miss Valerie Wells is being accosted right outside her workplace when an elderly Duchess comes to her rescue.
Alone in the world and with no marriage prospects of her own, the Duchess' offer of a position as a governess seems like a godsent. Until she meets her employer and experiences his brutish manners.
Left to care for his young son on his own, Randolph Higgins, Marquess of Naitham, still mourns the loss of his wife. Despite his mother's insistent attempts to get him to reenter the social circle, he refuses to entertain the idea. A conviction that crumbles when he is introduced to his son's new governess.
So comes spring after snow, and both Randolph and Valerie find their hearts reaching out for each other. A love that seems doomed, when Valerie starts receiving threats. A note logged in her pillow with a dagger brings back some of the worst memories of her life, fearing that the man from her past has returned to get her. Desperate to keep her safe from a stranger, Randolph fails to see the danger that's hiding in plain sight.
“Papa! Look! I see a bird!” Joshua cried out, scrambling across his mother’s lap in the jostling carriage to get a better look.
The Marquess of Naitham smiled down at his young son, reaching out to tousle the boy’s hair. How was it these four years had passed so quickly? The babe Randolph had fretted over during the long night it had taken for him to be born was now a rambunctious little imp, taking delight in everything the natural world had to offer.
“Come now, you mustn’t climb about, your mother is… well, it’s not good for you to knock into her in her state,” the Marquess said with a laugh as he plucked the boy up by the arms and sat him once again between himself and his wife.
“Randolph, you almost divulged a very important secret,” the Marchioness chided playfully. “We were not going to say anything just yet?”
“I remember, Claudia,” Randolph replied with a smile. “Though it is certainly difficult news to keep to myself when I wish to shout it in the face of every person I see on the road!”
The Marchioness laughed merrily, glad of her husband’s joy. For his part, Randolph could not be more pleased—the son of a Duke, the husband of the most beautiful and loving woman he had ever known apart from his own mother, and the father to one delightful child already and another coming by the end of the year.
He was acutely aware that he had everything in the world, and was the envy of every man he knew.
“Papa, where are we going again?” Joshua asked, turning his small, angelic face up to look at his father.
“We are going to London,” Randolph reminded him. “I have some business to conduct, and your mother wishes to visit with some friends of ours.”
“But what about me? What must I do in London?”
The Marchioness laughed at the seriousness of her son’s question, then answered, “I am fairly sure you have important business to see to at a bakery known for its cakes. They are as tall as you are!”
“As big as me?” Joshua asked, his eyes nearly round with wonder. “Will I have to eat it all at once?”
Randolph and Claudia laughed again, but their happiness was short-lived. A shout from up ahead of the carriage startled them, followed by the sharp retort of a pistol shot. The carriage shook wildly as the horses reared up in fear, neighing and whinnying until the whole contraption seemed as though it would come apart.
“Randolph! What’s happening?” Claudia cried as she reached for her son with one hand and braced herself against the wall of the carriage with the other.
“It’s all right! The driver will correct it!” Randolph promised, though he knew this may well be beyond the driver’s control.
When the cacophony died down, there was silence. Randolph looked to Claudia and Joshua, both of whom were too frightened to utter a sound. Randolph nodded gravely and opened the door on his side of the carriage intent on discovering the matter.
A blow to the back of his head sent him sprawling to the ground. He heard the sound of Claudia’s scream and clung to it in order to avoid succumbing to unconsciousness. Randolph rolled to his side to avoid another unseen blow, wincing when the ground beside his head was splintered by the strike of an iron rod.
“Randolph!” Claudia screamed, her high-pitched cry telling his addled brain that she was in danger. His son’s cries were enough to drag Randolph out of his stupor and bring him to his feet.
“You there! Stop!” Randolph bellowed at the man who’d struck him and was now running to the other side of the carriage, helping to drag Claudia and Joshua out of the conveyance.
Randolph watched as three burly men, filthy thieves all of them, pounced on his wife and son. He sprung forward, striking one of the men in the soft meat of his back with his fist, an animalistic sense of satisfaction taking hold of him when the man grunted and fell forward in pain.
“Get ‘im apart!” one of the thieves shouted, and suddenly the two who remained standing ran in separate directions, one of them still dragging Claudia by a handful of her long chestnut hair, the other sprinting away as best he could while holding Joshua.
Randolph’s instinct was to race to his wife, but she threw out her arm long enough to point him the other way.
“Save my son! Joshua!” she screamed, her cry silenced by a slap from the thief who held her. Rage burned inside Randolph at the insult his dear wife endured, but he followed her command.
Turning on his heel, he gave chase after the man who’d absconded with his terrified little boy. Randolph was spurred onward by the frightened calls of his son, screaming futilely for his papa to save him.
Unencumbered by the weight of a thrashing child, Randolph caught the thief soon enough. Careful to pry Joshua out of the confused man’s hands before assaulting him, Randolph made quick work of beating the man with his fists until he moved no more.
“Joshua, are you all right?” Randolph asked breathlessly, the fight still coursing through his veins. He felt of his son’s arms and head, though the boy was too scared to answer. Instead, Randolph scooped him up in his arms and held him tightly, soothing his fears.
“Come, let us see to your mother,” Randolph said as he hurried back to the carriage, the boy’s weight now hindering him as he tried to run.
Ahead of him, he could see his beloved Claudia still fighting desperately against her soulless attacker. Though his gaze was obscured by his own rage, Randolph’s anger burned brighter as the thief tore the bracelet from Claudia’s wrist and the modest jewels from around her neck. She fought relentlessly, kicking and clawing at the man in order to save herself.
“I’m coming, Claudia!” Randolph shouted, still holding Joshua tightly as he approached.
Seeing the Marquess’ return, the thief looked up in fear. Claudia took advantage of his confusion and slapped the man as hard as she could, sending him a step backwards for only a moment before he shot out his arm and struck her as hard as he could. She cried out for a moment before falling to the ground in a heap.
The man fled as Randolph reached the carriage and set Joshua inside, imploring him to stay still.
“Claudia!” Randolph shouted as he dropped to her side, turning her over gently.
A wave of nausea overtook him when he saw the gash on Claudia’s head where she had struck it against a large rock. Shaking, the tears pouring forth as he struggled to breathe, Randolph lifted his wife’s lifeless body and pulled her to him, holding her closely and whispering her name again and again through his tears.
Two Years Later...
“Valerie! Are you nearly finished with that piece?” the shopkeeper’s assistant, Madame Rochelle, inquired, sticking her head behind the curtain to the corner where Valerie sat at her work.
“Almost done, Madame. Please tell Monsieur LeBrec it will be ready within half of an hour,” Valerie replied, looking up from her delicate work.
“Make haste, girl. The Marquess of Walton will be sending ‘round his valet to retrieve this waistcoat by three of the clock,” the woman said urgently. “He intends to wear it tonight at the Duke of Framingham’s ball and has already sent payment.”
“Yes, Madame,” Valerie replied, dropping her head and hunching back over her work.
To go to a ball such as that, Valerie thought as she delicately affixed the shank to the plate of another button then applied one of the emerald jewels to the face.
It was hard for Valerie to imagine the splendor of such an event, but if the garments this modiste’s shop crafted were any indication, it must be the most glorious thing in the world to see. She spent her days hard at work at her bench, creating some of the most prized buttons in London. Unlike many of her peers in the industry, Valerie was paid rather handsomely in comparison—after all, Monsieur LeBrec was fearful of any other shop stealing her away, and often inquired about whether or not she was happy in her work.
“You know I cannot run this business without you,” he would often moan, pressing a few more coins into her hand at the end of a long day. “Your buttons are the only thing that keep the doors to my little shop open.”
His “little shop,” as Valerie often laughed, was one of the largest clothiers in London and had a waiting list as long as her arm for commissioned garments. That poor Monsieur LeBrec thought he was near ruin at any moment was a ridiculous notion, as the income from the bridal trousseaus alone would keep all of them in good stead for years to come.
“Valerie, mon cherie, you are a genuine artist,” Monsieur LeBrec said, coming closely on the heels of Madame Rochelle. “But I must have those buttons finished at once!”
“Oui, Monsieur,” Valerie replied, her knowledge of French greatly increased from the two years she had worked for the modiste.
“Merci, mon cherie,” the proprietor called out as he let the curtain fall around her work desk.
Valerie set herself to her work with vigor, completing the miniature portrait she was painting of the Marquess’ wife on the top button. The other buttons, set with emerald surrounded by pearls to match the jewels the Marchioness would wear, were nearly dry and ready to be sewn to the garment.
When she was finally finished, Valerie leaned back in her chair and stretched her arms over her head. Hers was painstaking work, but rewarding thanks to the generosity of the proprietor. Her earnings were enough to let a room above the shop, to take her meals at a nearby inn most days, and to send some funds back to her aged grandmother and young cousins when her visits allowed. The designs that Monsieur LeBrec brought over from France were not so complex that she couldn’t make something resembling their style, and the scraps of fine fabrics that he permitted her to keep meant she had sufficient garments to keep her warm in the winters and stylishly attired in the summer months.
All in all, hers was a charmed life, considering her parents were gone these past many years. Her one regret outside of losing them was that she could not have kept the school her parents had opened. Both of them had been highly-skilled and expertly educated artists, and students once came from all across the city to learn at their school.
“Ah, exquisite as always,” Madame Rochelle exclaimed, clapping her hands when she saw what Valerie had wrought. “These will surely be the talk of London tonight, and everyone will come in for more of your handiwork.”
“I’m very glad, Madam,” Valerie said. “I’d hate to think that Monsieur has placed so much trust in me and that his customers do not find it to their liking.”
“Nonsense, your styles are the envy of the entire ton. In fact,” Madame said, leaning closer and lowering her voice to whisper, “I shall inform Monsieur that you must receive a small gift along with your wages.”
“Thank you, Madame,” Valerie cried gratefully, already calculating that she had enough funds to pay for her room through to the end of the month some weeks away.
Rubbing her sore neck with her hands, Valerie paused in her reverie when she heard the sound of the clerk at the front of the store greeting a rather important client.
“Good day to you, Your Grace,” Abigail called out. “And who is this fine young gentleman escorting you today?”
A fine young gentleman? Valerie thought only moments before a streak of color tore past her work table.
“Joshua, darling! Where did you go?” an old woman called out. She hurried past Valerie’s nook and continued on towards the back of the shop, unaware of the impish face that now peeked up at the button maker from beneath her table.
“Well, well. Are you the young man they are searching for high and low?” Valerie asked, pinching the boy’s cheek lightly and causing him to giggle shyly.
“I’m hiding from all the ladies,” the boy answered, cupping his hand to his mouth as though sharing a deep secret.
“Why would you hide from the ladies when they’re all so beautiful?”
The boy scrunched his face in disgust. “They all smell like flowers and camphor, and they’re always grabbing me up in their arms just on account of my mama is dead. But I’m grown now, I don’t need them all trying to hold me all the time,” he explained in a very matter of fact way.
He looked around at Valerie’s table, suddenly distracted by the instruments and ribbons, paints, and jewels.
“What’s all that for?” he asked, plucking a tiny sliver of golden thread from where it sat.
“Here, I’ll show you,” Valerie said, taking her needle and the thread and teaching the boy how to bind a brocade edge to a button face.
She marveled at how attentive and still the boy was as she held his hands in hers, showing him how to push the needle through carefully. He concentrated intently, and within minutes had completed an entire simple yet well-wrought piece.
“Like this?” the boy asked, holding it up and beaming proudly.
“That is excellent work!” Valerie said, complimenting him. In truth, it was rather good for a first attempt, and she was amazed at how he took to the task without fussing or fidgeting. “Would you like to see how I paint a picture on it?”
“Yes please!” he said happily, clapping his hands together and standing up on his toes to look over the edge of her table.
“Here, you take this brush. First you’ll dab it very gently in this paint and darken the entire face of the button.” Valerie watched over his shoulder as he did as she instructed, his movements of the delicate brush somewhat clumsy but still very intentional.
“Excellent work, young craftsman. Why, you’re nearly ready to join the guild,” she teased, patting his hand. “But now comes the hard part. Watch what I do with my pencil, then try to copy it precisely.”
Valerie drew out a small face on a scrap of paper while the boy watched, his eyes never leaving the line left by the nub of pencil. He frowned at first as she drew an oval and a series of lines, but then his face lit up when the visage took shape and his own face stared back at him.
“That’s astounding!” he said in awe, his eyes as round as two wide blue pools. “How did you do that?”
“It takes years of practice, I’m afraid,” Valerie said wistfully, struck by a gentle pang at remembering how she’d learned to draw.
“Let me have a go at it then,” the boy answered, plucking up the pencil and drawing a crude oval in an attempt to copy her work.
Together, they worked in near silence while the boy made his drawing then attempted to paint it onto a button. Though his brush skills were certainly lacking due to age and inexperience, Valerie was able to enhance his work slightly until it at least resembled him, looking far less like a melted blob of pink candle wax.
He was overjoyed with the result, turning to Valerie and beaming proudly. “I have to show my grandmother!” he shouted excitedly as he turned to leave, only to collide with an older woman’s midsection as he did so.
“Joshua! Where have you been, I’ve looked all over for you,” the woman scolded, though Valerie could tell by her voice that she was not nearly so displeased as she tried to sound. “Did you not hear me calling for you?”
“No, Grandmother. I was busy working,” the boy replied, holding up the button proudly.
“Where did you get that?” the woman asked, gasping. “That is not a plaything, Joshua, buttons are so very expensive. We must return it at once!”
“If I may,” Valerie interrupted, standing from her chair and curtseying to the finely dressed woman, “I gave that to the boy. It is only made from scraps that I had no use for.”
“You’re the one who fashions such marvelous buttons?” the woman asked, her face lighting up. Valerie curtseyed again shyly, unaccustomed as she was to praise—or even an exchange of words—from the customers.
“Yes, though I do not know that they are so wonderful,” she answered. “This young man here has quite the eye and the necessary patience, perhaps he will someday grow to become a master craftsman as well.”
“I should think not,” the older woman said, though her tone and expression were not unkind. “My grandson is the heir to the Marquess of Naitham, my son, as well as future heir to my husband’s estate, the Duke of Galbridge.”
“Then…” Valerie’s voice trailed off as a sense of unease welled up inside her. She curtseyed once again and added breathlessly, “Forgive me, Your Grace, I did not know who you are as I rarely have cause to see any of Monsieur LeBrec’s customers. I’m certain you are very proud of your grandson, and he has a very important future ahead of him.”
“Think nothing of it, my dear, it is an easy mistake,” the Duchess said, smiling warmly. She looked around at Valerie’s work table, noting the cluttered but cozy nook where she worked well away from the fine individuals who shopped in the well-appointed salon area.
Looking back at Valerie for a moment then taking her grandson’s hand, the Duchess’ expression turned oddly scrutinizing.
“I have a request to make of you, my dear, one that may come as a complete surprise to both of us,” the Duchess said. “I wonder if I could impose upon you to become the boy’s new governess?”
“Me?” Valerie asked, pressing her hand to her heart and gaping at the woman. “But Your Grace, I know nothing of being a governess.”
“That is of no consequence at the moment, I assure you,” the woman answered. “We are desperately in need of someone who is both firm but kind and can impart a certain—” She looked to her grandson and chose her words carefully. “—a certain sense of manners and behavior, though doing so without any harshness or undue punishment. We seem to have a problem keeping governesses in our employ, and I’m afraid I am rather desperate.”
Valerie understood her meaning all too well, and her eyes fell on the boy’s upturned, hopeful face. Her expression softened as she thought of what sort of governess may have raised a hand to the sweet child in the past, all for not knowing how to entertain and encourage him.
“I’m so sorry, Your Grace, but I cannot leave my position here. It would be unthinkable to leave Monsieur LeBrec when he took such a chance in hiring me to begin with,” Valerie said, genuinely sad at refusing. “But with a young man as darling as your grandson, I’m certain you’ll have no trouble finding a suitable governess who will know how to treat him.”
“Thank you, my dear,” the Duchess said, her disappointment evident though she still appeared light-hearted. “Yes, I’m sure we’ll find someone eventually… though I do hope that day is sooner rather than later. I’m not certain I can continue chasing after one as rambunctious as he!”
“You will be a good lad for your grandmother, will you not?” Valerie asked, bending down to look at Joshua kindly. “I will permit you to keep your button to remember our fun, but only if you promise that Her Grace can rest from time to time.”
“I promise,” Joshua said begrudgingly. “But only if I can come back and make another one when Grandmother has to return!”
“I promise,” Valerie said, laughing. “And next time, perhaps we can make a button for your other sleeve. You can wear the matched pair proudly, hmm?”
“I will,” Joshua promised before tugging on his grandmother’s hand. “Can we go to buy some cakes now?”
The Duchess laughed indulgently. “Of course. After all, I suppose you did mind yourself well enough while I was here to earn a small sweet. Though I rather think it had more to do with this woman and her patience towards you, don’t you agree?” She turned to Valerie and said, “Remember, I was quite serious in my offer. I think I shall ask you each and every time I return here whether you might reconsider.”
“I promise to think on it very carefully, Your Grace,” Valerie said, “but that is all I can promise for now.”
Valerie watched the Duchess and her young grandson depart the shop, smiling at the way the older woman took his hand protectively. Had she had any other employer but the dear Monsieur, Valerie would have leapt at the opportunity the woman provided. Instead, she remained here where her loyalty was much appreciated.
A sudden movement past the shop windows made Valerie dart back behind the safety of her curtain. Peering between the seams in the fabric, she looked out to see if the man was still outside. To her dismay, Benedict Rouse looked inside the shop, watching for her.
“There is that horrid man again,” Madame Rochelle said at Valerie’s elbow, startling her. “I have asked Monsieur to ban him from this property, but alas, he owns the establishment across the way. There is nothing we can do.”
“I know,” Valerie said, sighing miserably. “If only I had some way of proving that I am not beholden to him.”
It had only been in the last six months that Mr. Rouse began lurking about the modiste’s business, trying to catch sight of Valerie. The brute of a man, stuffed into now-shabby clothing that was too small and now out of style, gave him the appearance of a beggar who might have stolen an Earl’s trunks and forced his frame into the fine clothing. He paraded about as though he were somehow important now that he had amassed a very modest amount of wealth, sneering at everyone who passed.
“I do not know why he insists on coming here,” Madame Rochelle said, sniffing with disdain. “He has been told you are not marrying him, so why does he not go and find some other poor girl to harass?”
“I don’t know,” Valerie said, though in truth, she had some small inkling. Mr. Rouse claimed that her parents, dead these fifteen years, had taken on a debt and that she was responsible for the payment. He had presented her with two options—pay the full amount plus interest that continued to build, or marry him.
Valerie was determined to do neither one.
“Where is your proof of this debt?” Valerie had demanded once in a rare display of anger.
“I have the proof, and moreover, I have the law on my side,” Mr. Rouse had said threateningly, leering at her as he rubbed the three days’ growth of beard that speckled his jowls. “You’ll either pay, or I’ll have you locked up. Of course, there’s always the more pleasant option.”
He’d grabbed her wrist and moved to kiss her, forcing her backwards until she nearly collided with the wall outside the shop, his large frame blocking her from both view and escape. It was only her cry of revulsion that had saved her when Monsieur LeBrec had heard her and come to her aid.
In the months since that awful day, Mr. Rouse had made it very clear that he intended to have Valerie for himself. He’d gone so far as to insinuate to some of the business owners nearby that he’d already had his way with her—and that she had been very willing—both of which were horrible lies that caused her to burn with shame and indignation.
“My dear Valerie, that pig has returned,” Monsieur LeBrec said with a disgusted sneer as he brought her a small case of supplies. “While it would destroy my very soul and cause me to become destitute to have you leave me, if you are not safe from that animal, then I shall find you employment with one of my competitors.”
“That will not be required, Monsieur, I’m sure of it,” Valerie said, a flutter of fear causing her words to sound hollow. The thought of losing such a good salary because of that awful man made her even angrier than before.
“But what will you do if he persists?” Madame Rochelle asked, still watching out the window for any sign of Rouse.
“I do not know,” Valerie confessed, “but I must think of something.”
“How much longer is this going to take?” Randolph asked, looking to his solicitor.
Thomas smiled. “Only ten minutes less than the last time you asked me that, I should think.”
“Do not mock my weariness, it will not put you in good stead with me,” Randolph replied, though his answer was not so harsh as the words themselves.
“I cannot help it. I know you love me like a brother.” Thomas grinned and ducked out of the way when it appeared as though Randolph might throw a playful punch.
“That’s because we are brothers, ninny, a fact that my father likes to dispute and my mother attempts to politely ignore. I don’t know how they do it, but worse, I don’t know how you tolerate it,” Randolph answered, straightening up in the saddle and looking about the fields.
“I wasn’t given much choice in the matter,” Thomas reminded him sadly. “It is only through your generous good graces that I even have gainful employment, and only through our father’s sense of shame that I received an education. A bastard son is bad enough, so long as no one has cause to speak of it. Permitting that son to go hungry and without a skill or trade is unthinkable, at least in your circles.”
“You travel within the same circles, Thomas. Do not pretend otherwise,” Randolph said, looking down at him from where he sat.
The Marquess of Naitham noted they had the same features, so pronounced that he might as well have been seeing himself in a looking glass. Despite the nearly ten years between them, they both had the same strong jaw, black hair, ice-blue eyes, and regal air about them that came from not caring what others may whisper behind their fans. The similarities ended there for the most part, though.
Where Thomas was an easygoing man with a quick wit and an abundant laugh, Randolph was quiet and reserved. He preferred the solitude of his study to the gaiety of a party or ball, often choosing to send his brother in his stead if it was an invitation in which the Marquess’ presence would have been only slightly missed. Thomas had managed to marry well due to his education and employment, a third daughter of an extremely wealthy Earl, whom he happened to adore deeply.
Perhaps more than he should, Randolph had thought on more than one occasion. Wives whom their husbands adored had a tendency to die and leave them suffering, wishing with every sunrise that they had passed away in the night.
Instead, that damnable sun woke Randolph every day, another day of misery and loathing, especially for the commoners who were both a constant burden and an infrequent curse.
“How many more of these are there?” Randolph groused, looking askance at the humble stone house with the thatched roof. He shrank back visibly when a small child wearing only a coarse woolen frock emerged, a flurry of chickens escaping behind her.
“Good day to ya, sirs,” the child said, shielding her eyes from the glare of the sun with a grubby hand.
Thomas dismounted his horse and lowered himself to look the child in the eyes, smiling as he held out his hand for the girl to shake. She giggled at the finely dressed gentleman, or at least as fine as any she would have ever seen.
“Good day to you, My Lady,” Thomas said in a silly voice. “Pray tell, are your mother or father at home?”
“Me ma’s in the house there,” the child answered, pointing over her shoulder, “and me da’s in the fields.” The child looked to the vast swath of land behind Thomas, and Randolph followed her gaze to where a cluster of men in the distance went about their plowing.
“Would you mind going in to fetch your ma for me?” Thomas asked, leaving Randolph to roll his eyes.
Why we do not just knock at the door like civilized people is beyond me! he thought bitterly, not one to waste time on coddling children.
The child ran indoors in an instant, and a hearty wife emerged only moments later, wiping her hands on her apron. At the sight of the two men and their horses, she blanched, curtseying deeply.
“Good day to you, My Lords,” she began, but Randolph laughed.
“Only one lord, madam, that one there is naught but a stranger I found on the road,” he said, causing Thomas to shoot him a glare of contempt.
“Madam, we’ve come today to make the rounds of the tenants and learn if there is anything amiss, any concerns that need tending, or anything of the sort,” Thomas said, withdrawing a small leather-bound book from his waistcoat pocket and opening it to a new page.
“I’m sorry, good sir, but I don’t take yer meaning?” the woman said, still looking frightened as she darted her eyes from Thomas to the Marquess and back again.
“We are simply visiting to ensure that the tenant farmers have all that they require for the upcoming season,” Thomas explained more slowly. “Is your house in good repair? Does your husband have sufficient tools, and are they in good working order?”
The woman paused, as though trying to discern if this was some sort of trap. Finally, she said slowly, “Pardon my saying so, but the hedgerow beyond the fields there has some terrible holes in need of mending.”
“Mending? How does one mend a hedgerow?” Randolph asked a little impatiently.
“I know not, My Lord,” the woman replied, “I only know that there’s been some fearsome hounds as of late. They come in the night, a-howlin’ outside our walls. Then come the morning, there’ll be hens lying scattered about, dead and half-eaten.”
Thomas scribbled furiously in his book, though Randolph muttered something unintelligible under his breath. The woman looked between them for a few more moments then added hastily, “Though I’m not complainin’ or nothin’! Tis an honor and a privilege to abide here in Galbridge.”
“Think nothing of it, madam. If we do not learn of these matters, then we cannot remedy them. As for the missing hens, I shall do my best to procure a few dozen hens to replace what has been harmed. You should have them by tomorrow at the latest.”
“Why, thank you, good sir!” the woman said, beaming as tears of relief brimmed in her tired eyes.
“Have a wonderful day, madam,” Thomas said before looking around. “And where has your daughter gone off to?”
A small head popped up from behind a woodpile beside the house and Thomas laughed. “Madam, it is a terrible shame that I have so many sweets weighing down my pockets, and no one to help me by taking some.”
The woman laughed happily when her daughter darted forward, her hand outstretched at the sound of the word “sweets.” Thomas dropped a few of the candies in the child’s hands, then pressed a few more into her mother’s hand.
“Save these for later so we don’t ruin her stomach.” He patted the woman’s hand kindly, then returned to his horse.
“Thank heavens that is over with,” Randolph muttered as they rode away from the house.
“Yes, and only three-and-twenty more to visit… today, that is. The remaining forty or so homes can be inspected tomorrow and the day after,” Thomas replied.
“And you think that I shall attend to each and every one?” Randolph asked incredulously. “You’ve gone mad.”
“Tell me, do you have anything more important to be doing? Besides remaining shut up in your chambers with a bottle or two of port, attempting to erase your own memory?”
“Careful, little brother,” Randolph said with a growl. “That is not a subject on which you wish to tread.”
“Why should I not?” Thomas asked, apparently at ease with Randolph’s threats. “What happens to you affects me as well, remember. If you put yourself into an early grave with drink and grief, then I shall most certainly be out of a job.”
“If you make me visit any more filthy commoners and their house chickens, you’ll also be out of a job.” Randolph glowered, though he knew Thomas saw right through him.
“Come now, these are the very people who put the food on your table and the very delicate clothes on your dainty, spoiled back. Show them some gratitude and attention,” Thomas said bluntly.
Randolph longed to argue though he knew Thomas was right. And it was not the farmers’ fault that Randolph harbored a grudge against anyone who even resembled the men who’d accosted his carriage on the road two years before. Still, his ire was raised each time he was forced to greet one of these people, images of those thieves still swarming in his mind every time he closed his eyes.
By the time they had completed Thomas’s inane task, Randolph was in a foul temper indeed. He returned to the stables and saw to his horse himself, if only to have something to occupy his mind and body. With brush in hand, he sought to scrub away the thoughts that had plagued him all throughout the long day.
Randolph was still at his work when the carriage pulled up to the stables, empty of passengers though the driver held a young boy in his lap, helping the lad hold the reins. The driver smiled benevolently while the boy laughed happily.
Upon seeing Randolph, however, the driver’s face fell. He pulled the carriage to a stop and hurried down from the seat, then reached for the boy. After sending him on his way, he faced the Marquess and apologized at once.
“It was only a brief diversion from the house to the stable, My Lord,” the driver explained sheepishly. “Her Grace had said it would be all right, as the boy had to endure such a long journey from the city.”
Randolph grimaced, but did not have it in him to lash out. “See to it that it does not happen again, if you please. My son is not a footman and I do not take kindly to him prancing about where he does not belong… nor with whom.”
“Yes, My Lord,” the driver muttered, bowing low. Randolph winced at once at hearing the humiliation in the man’s voice, but it could not be helped.
After all, commoners had their place, as did servants—and that place did not include mingling with their betters.
Valerie toiled night and day on the buttons for the last round of orders Monsieur LeBrec had accepted. In part, it gave her a reprieve from thinking about a certain boorish monster who wished her harm. At the same time, she could not help but worry that the Monsieur would tire of the problems that Mr. Rouse might bring down on them all; if so, he might send her on her way for his own protection. She would never leave her work unfinished and cause him to face the consequences from unhappy customers.
At long last, Valerie was finished. The rows upon rows of buttons stood in lines like so many soldiers marching in formation. She marveled at the patterns and colors that her handiwork had wrought, lost for a moment in the memory of honing her skill.
“Art is a joy-filled thing, a blessing on us all from the heavens,” her father had often said to her and the rest of his diligent pupils in his academy. “But art alone does not put bread in our mouths. You must hone a craft that puts your great talent to use until that talent is recognized and appreciated. You may strive for your paintings to adorn the walls of a museum or mansion, though there is no shame in eating a hearty supper after selling a picture card or two.”
After years of study at her parents’ knees, Valerie had realized one of her great skills: setting beautiful work in miniature such that button making required. As costly as the items were, so expensive that none but the wealthiest of noblemen and their families could enjoy them on their garments, Valerie was certainly in good stead where income was concerned.
Her good fortune only grew upon meeting Monsieur LeBrec and answering his advertisement for a button maker. After only a few moments of showing him samples of her work, she had been retained. Though her salary was more than sufficient, it was no pirate’s bounty. Still, it was enough to permit her to set aside a portion of her earnings each week in hopes of opening her own shop someday.
That would now be her only dream, as at the age of seven-and-twenty she was long past the years of dreaming for a husband who would take her from the drudgery of working for her food. Valerie knew that opportunity had been stolen away, and she had long since made peace with her solitary existence.
“Valerie! Are you already here?” Madame Rochelle called out as she removed her overcoat and hung her bonnet from its peg. “I did not know you arrived so early.”
“I did not,” Valerie replied with a sheepish smile. “I’m afraid I never left yesterday. Monsieur permitted me to lock the door when he left for the day, but I stayed and worked through the night. Though I’m weary to the bone, all of the orders are finished.”
She pointed to the completed trays, ready to be sewn onto garments of every kind. Madame only looked stunned.
“That must have taken you all night,” she whispered before looking up at Valerie. “How ever did you manage it with no stop for rest?”
“I was determined to see them finished today, lest today be the final day of my employment.” The memory of Mr. Rouse pounding his meaty fists against the front window caused her to shudder.
“You mustn’t say that, mon cherie. Monsieur would never permit that animal to run you off. He won’t stand for it, and neither will I. I will go to the magistrate myself, if that is what is required.”
“Oh no, Madame, you mustn’t!” Valerie cried, remembering the threat of her parents’ supposed debt. “Here, I will go now. The work is done for the day and Mr. Rouse will not be expecting me on the streets at this hour. I shall steal home and go to my rest, and he shall be none the wiser.”
Valerie tidied up her worktable and wrote out the catalog of button orders, indicating which ones had been reserved by which customers. She gathered her things and headed out, tying her bonnet as she went.
“And where you be off to at this hour?” a man’s voice said from dangerously close behind her. Valerie turned, a look of loathing and terror on her face. “You wouldn’t be returnin’ from another man’s bed now, would ya?”
“I’ll thank you to mind what you say to me,” Valerie said, straightening up and attempting to sound imposing.
“Ha, that’s a good one,” Mr. Rouse bellowed. “As though you had any way to stop me.”
Just as Valerie thought of some harsh retort, the older man lunged forward, pressing her against the wall and leering down at her. His breath was an unwelcomed curtain of unpleasantness against her cheek as she turned her head away from him.
“You haven’t given me an answer, pretty girl,” he said huskily, his words striking fear in her. “Your time has run down, and I want to know. Is it debtor’s prison or my bed, which will it be?”
“I’d gladly take the gaol with its rats and filth,” Valerie hissed, still looking away, “as I’m sure they’re a mite better accommodating than you!”
“Why, you insolent wench,” Mr. Rouse shouted before shoving Valerie towards the corner of the building.
No, get away from here! Valerie thought, seeing the enclosed alleyway before her. She would be trapped like an animal in a cage.
Moving to duck past Mr. Rouse, Valerie skirted away only to be caught by the back of her coat collar. The burly man pulled her backwards until she lost her footing and tumbled to the cobblestones below, crying out in pain as she scraped her hands on the ground.
“Make no mistake, you old baggage, I will have you… one way or another!” he said, standing over her while Valerie cowered.
They looked up at the sound of a carriage stopping abruptly, the pounding footsteps of a footman and a driver approaching. Shoving Mr. Rouse back coarsely, the men helped Valerie to her feet before gently pushing her behind them, blocking her from view.
“Aye then, what’s the meanin’ of this!” Mr. Rouse shouted, only to be silenced by the sound of a woman’s shrill command.
“Hold your tongue if you do not wish to be taken in by the constable,” the woman said.
Mr. Rouse turned to look at the intruder while Valerie stood on her toes to see over her rescuers’ shoulders. With a swell of relief, she spied the Duchess who’d spoken to her only a week before.
“When I venture into London to visit my modiste, I do not take kindly to seeing one of his best workers thrown to the street,” she continued. “It rather makes me wonder whether her assailant shouldn’t be hauled off to gaol, since I witnessed it for myself.”
Mr. Rouse stammered uselessly for a moment, bowing as he spoke, but the Duchess held up a hand to silence him. Coming around behind her servants, she extended a hand to Valerie and brushed some of the dust from the younger woman’s skirts.
“Are you harmed, my dear?” the old woman asked.
“No, Your Grace, only my pride has been wounded,” Valerie answered. Looking back to the murderous expression on Mr. Rouse’s face, she was struck with an idea. “But tell me, has the position of governess been filled?”
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