Book blurb: Having been the sole provider for her family since she was 16, Lady Annabelle Wyatt knows an awful lot about responsibility but sadly, very little about love.
Richard Armstrong is just back from serving in the Army and is having difficulty filling his deceased father’s shoes, as the new Duke of Hampshire.
Richard is enamoured from the moment he sets eyes on the hard working Annabelle but she is far too bound by duty to admit that she reciprocates his feelings.
With a little meddling from Richard’s mother, love seems to blossom between the pair, only to be threatened by Annabelle’s vengeful brother. Can Richard and Annabelle find lasting happiness, or will her brother’s wrath separate them permanently?
As Richard Armstrong entered Wyatt’s Coffee House, he found it much like any other coffee house he’d ever been to; perhaps it was a little brighter, a little more cared for but generally unremarkable. He hung his greatcoat on the hooks by the door, took a seat at an empty table and as he waited for his friend, he glanced around. There was a tall, sandy haired man behind the counter, keeping water boiling over the fire and preparing the coffees. Along the counter sat plates of sweet treats, cakes and pastries under glass tops. As his eyes were drawn to the chocolate cake on display, Richard thought what a good idea it was, to display the cakes rather than just having a list on a chalkboard. Cleaning off tables and taking orders, was a waif-like woman of perhaps 25.
From the snippets of conversation that he could hear, it seemed to be occupied mostly by Members of Parliament. Given that the friend he was meeting was a member of the Whig party, that wasn’t wholly unexpected.
He dashed a hand through his dark, dishevelled hair, sweeping the stray strands back from his forehead. His mother wanted him to get a haircut but whilst he’d had the back trimmed to collar length, he was loathe to cut the rest just yet.
“A new face; what can I get for you?”
He looked up into the most perfect face that he had ever seen. Her blue eyes were framed by black lashes, which emphasised their light colour. Her heart shaped face was likewise framed by a halo of black curls, parted in the middle and swept back from her face, although over each ear, tiny corkscrew curls, too short to be bound, tempted him to reach out and touch them. Her lips were full and pink, with a perfect cupid’s bow and he had the overwhelming urge to kiss them.
“Just a coffee or are you hungry as well,” she prompted.
“Oh, um.” Richard realised that he’d been staring.
“Don’t worry about him, he’s just got back to this country, it’ll probably take him a while to acclimatise to our ways again.”
That was Jonathan Rhyman, the friend he was meeting and as the serving girl turned and favoured his friend with a warm smile, Richard had the quite unexpected urge to hit him.
“Lord Rhyman, how are you?” the woman asked.
“Very well, thank you.” Jonathan hung his coat up before turning back. “Allow me to introduce my friend. Depending on your preference, this is the Duke of Hampshire or Captain Armstrong. Richard, this is Miss Wyatt.”
To his surprise, the serving girl held her hand out for him to shake and only good manners made him grasp it.
“Very nice to meet you, Your Grace.” She bestowed him with a smile that made his heart stop for a beat.
“And you, Miss Wyatt.”
“I was very sorry to hear about your father.”
“Thank you,” he answered automatically, wondering how she even knew of his father’s death, and that she would bother to mention it after six months.
“We’ll have two coffees,” Jonathan said, “and I know I’m too late for lunch but do you have any of your delicious stew left?”
“I don’t I’m afraid but as it’s you, this evening’s casserole is nearly ready. It’s venison.”
“Sounds lovely. Richard?”
Richard had been too busy watching her to pay much attention to their conversation but he could bluff. “Uh, yes, please.”
“And do you take cream or milk with your coffee?” Miss Wyatt asked him.
“Neither, thank you.”
“Black it is. I won’t be a moment, gentlemen.”
Richard watched her as she weaved between the tables, spoke with the man behind the counter and until she had disappeared through the door to the kitchen.
“What is a creature like that doing working here?” he asked, turning to his friend.
“Don’t be obtuse. With those clothes and that accent, she clearly has noble breeding, so what is a noble woman doing working in a coffee house?”
“Sorry, sometimes I forget that you’ve been away for so long. It was quite the scandal at the time. In fact, I’m surprised you didn’t hear, even in the Army.”
“So tell me now,” he was growing impatient.
Jonathan smiled, clearly enjoying teasing his friend. “She is Lady Annabelle Wyatt, the daughter of William Wyatt, the Marquess of Dorset.”
Richard took a deep, calming breath. “And she’s here because?”
“Of primogeniture.” Jonathan stopped teasing and grew sombre. “She is the only offspring from Wyatt’s second marriage and when he died, the eldest son got everything. Thankfully, she was only 16, so she inherited her dowry, which she used to buy herself and her mother a house in London and lease this place.”
“Why on earth doesn’t her brother look after her? He can’t be happy that she’s a serving wench?”
“Ah well, rumour has it that there was a family rift.”
They ceased their conversation as the man behind the counter brought their coffees over.
“Thank you, Frederick,” Jonathan said, then returned his attention to his friend. “Apparently, her brother didn’t like his new step mother one bit, so much so that he was banished from the estate for over a decade.”
“And he won’t help his sister because of who her mother is?”
“So I gather.”
Richard refrained from asking any further questions when he saw the door to the kitchen open and Annabelle reappear, carrying a tray. She set the edge of the tray against their table and served them two bowls of venison stew with fresh bread.
“There, enjoy your food gentlemen.” She turned away.
“Thank you, Lady Wyatt.” Richard smiled at her
Annabelle turned back but her smile was no longer genuine. “Just ‘Miss’, please.”
“But you’re a Lady!”
“I am a coffee house owner and cook,” she said with serenity, although her eyes seemed to flash with anger. “Please excuse me, Sir.”
He watched her as she headed over to another table, where customers had attracted her attention.
“Strange woman.” Richard commented, his eyes following her again until she went into the kitchen and was blocked from his view. He turned back to his friend, who was smiling at him. “What?”
“Don’t give me ‘what’ Richard, I am your oldest friend, remember? On this occasion however, I’m afraid that you will be disappointed. Miss Wyatt has received many offers over the years, and I have never known her to accept a single one.”
“Why should that disappoint me? She merely ignites my curiosity, that’s all.”
“Of course,” Jonathan agreed, although he sounded disbelieving.
“So, what was it that you wanted to discuss?” he asked as he turned away from the kitchen door, determined to pay Miss Annabelle Wyatt no further mind.
“Lord Melbourne would like to meet you. He asked me to set something up.”
“Ostensibly to discuss the Portuguese Civil War but honestly, I think he’s more interested in seeing if you might consider a political career in the future.”
“I’ve only been back a week, Jon.”
“True but you are a Duke and you have served you country. He wants to try and snap you up before the Tories sink their teeth into you.”
“My father’s estate hasn’t even been settled yet.”
“But your peerage entitles you to sit in the House of Lords.”
“After seven years in the Army, I think that I might like a few month to, what did you call it? Acclimatise to our ways again?”
“Relax, Richard, you won’t be called upon until the next election.”
“Please,” Richard scoffed. “Lord Grey has resigned, Lord Melbourne replaced him but there is already talk that the King is dissatisfied and might dismiss him in favour of Robert Peel. It sounds to me as if Parliament could be dissolved at any time.”
“So,” Jonathan said with a smile, “your head hasn’t been completely in the sand then?”
“My head is never in the sand,” he answered with a sad smile. “Tell Lord Melbourne that I will arrange to see him next week. Right now I need some time to settle in.”
“Of course. Now eat your casserole before it gets cold.”
Annabelle headed through to her office with a pot of tea and slice of cake, grateful for the chance to sit down for a little while before the afternoon deliveries. Her cakes and pastries were quite popular among some London ladies, so each day between three and four in the afternoon, she made house calls with special orders.
She set about preparing her cup but her respite was not to last, as there came a knock at the door. She sighed before calling for them to come in.
To her surprise, it wasn’t Minnie or Ethel standing there, but the gentleman she had been introduced to earlier. With his dark hair and dark eyes, he was a handsome man no doubt, but his insistence that she use her courtesy title earlier had irked her. Still, she couldn’t help but admire the fine figure that he cut as he stood in the doorway.
“Can I help you?” she asked briskly, rising to her feet.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to intrude.” Despite his words, he came in and closed the door behind himself.
Annabelle gestured to the seat opposite her desk as she sat down.
“What can I do for you, Your Grace?”
“I got the impression that I offended you earlier and I wanted to apologise.”
“You have nothing to apologise for,” she assured him.
Richard didn’t believe her but he didn’t want to start an argument either. “This is a fine establishment you have here.”
“I must ask though, why does a woman of your stature work at all?”
“You think I should enter the workhouse?”
“No, no, not at all! What I mean is, won’t one of your relatives offer you shelter? Surely if your brother knew what you had been reduced to-“
“He would do nothing,” she interrupted him. “And besides, who says that I would even accept his help if he offered it?”
“But… Why ever not?”
“I have my reasons, Sir.” She got to her feet. “Perhaps you believe that I have been reduced and certainly many others share your sentiments but as far as I am concerned, I do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. I am able to keep myself, my mother and a few servants and I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, I believe it far preferable to living off the charity of a relative.”
“Then why don’t you marry? Surely a woman of your beauty must have suitors, even without a dowry.”
“So that I might hand what few worldly possessions I do have over to my husband, and trust that he will do right by me and my mother?”
“A husband would do right by you, and your mother!”
“And when you are proved wrong, Sir, what am I to do then? How do I reclaim what is rightfully mine? Will you reclaim it for me? Because the law will cease to recognise me as a human being.”
“But surely you will only marry someone that you trust!”
He was becoming agitated but his words actually cooled Annabelle’s temper and she looked at him with pity.
“I have trusted only a few people in my life, Your Grace, and each and every one of them has betrayed me in some way.”
“But surely there must be someone that you trust?”
“Yes, exactly four people.”
“And will none of them marry you?”
Annabelle smiled as she came around the desk. “Three of them are women and I honestly don’t think that Frank, my barman, would be interested in marriage to me.”
Richard was stunned. “And your mother allows this behaviour?”
Her smile faltered. “No, she does not. In fact she hates my independence, she believes it to be most unladylike. In all honesty, she rarely tolerates my presence these days.”
The pain in her voice made him want to weep for her.
“And yet you still stand by her,” he said softly.
“I’m all she has,” she answered simply.
Richard looked at the girl before him, an angel if ever there was such a thing, and all he wanted to do was to take her pain away. He stepped closer and Annabelle looked up, startled by his proximity but as she met his gaze, she found herself unable to step away.
“And who do you have?” he asked softly. “Who do you lean on when times are hard? Who comforts you?”
Annabelle felt very strange looking up into this man’s eyes. Her breathing was shallow, her skin felt flushed and she had the most delightful feeling in the pit of the stomach. It was a heady feeling but most pleasant. Although she had felt nothing like it before, she instinctively knew that it was dangerous.
“I… I don’t need anyone, Your Grace.” She tried to sound strong but her voice wouldn’t comply.
He took another step towards her and she stepped back.
“You’re lying,” he said, his own voice sounding different, deep and intoxicating. “And call me Richard, please.”
Annabelle backed up another step and Richard matched her.
“Everyone needs someone,” he continued, his voice conjuring up all sorts of desire within her.
“Not me,” she assured him, although she sounded far from certain.
She had backed up to the wall now and he placed is hands on either side of her, trapping her.
Richard looked down at her, drinking in her features as he slowly lowered his head. She looked startled but not afraid and when she didn’t push him away, he gently pressed his lips to hers.
Annabelle let out a tiny whimper, which only fuelled the fire within him, so he gathered her in his arms and pulled her against him, then he deepened the kiss.
Annabelle knew that she should be fighting him but his kiss felt so good and her body wouldn’t listen to her mind. She kissed him back, wondering how a man that she hardly knew could ignite such passion within her, passion that until now, she didn’t know she had.
Finally sense returned to her and she placed her hands on his shoulder and began to push. He wouldn’t be moved however, no matter how hard she tried. Panic began to replace joy and she stopped responding to the kiss and finally, he pulled away.
His expression was questioning, asking her why she had ended the kiss. Her answer was a sharp slap across his cheek.
“How dare you!”
Richard stepped away. “How dare I?” he yelled. “You wanted that as much as I did!”
“You are wrong and I will thank you to leave now, before I summon the police!”
“Ha!” he answered. “The trouble with you is that you don’t know what you want!”
“You think that just because I am in trade, that you are free to do with me as you wish? Because I can assure you, Your Grace, that whilst I do my utmost to give a good service, I am not on the menu! How dare you contrive a meeting, only to force your advances on me? No matter how reduced my circumstances, I am not for sale!”
“You think that I want to buy you?” He sounded genuinely offended.
“Why else would you ask so many questions about my situation? But no I don’t think that you want to buy me, I think that you would prefer it if I were free!”
“I am only trying to help you, can’t you see that?”
“Why would you want to help me?”
“Because I like you.”
“You don’t even know me!” she spat. “You were trying to help yourself, is more likely.”
“You insufferable, stubborn, bull-headed woman!” he yelled and with that, he stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind him.
Annabelle made her way back to her chair on shaking legs and sat down. A tentative knock came at the door moments later, too tentative to be the Duke of Hampshire come back.
Ethel stood there looking worried. “Are you okay, ma’am? Only, we heard loud voices.”
“I’m fine, thank you Ethel. His Grace just got a bit ahead of himself. It’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before.”
“If you’re sure, Ma’am.”
“I am. Now I just want to drink my tea in peace and rest assured, I’ll be back out before the evening crowd comes in.”
“What about the deliveries?”
“Oh…” Being around men almost all day had introduced her to a few expletives, but she bit her exclamation back and checked her pocket watch. She sighed as she realised that her break would have to wait.
“I’ll go now.”
“Frank volunteered to do the round, if it helps.”
“He doesn’t mind doing it?”
“Then thank him for me. I’ll watch the cauldron for him when I’ve had my tea.”
Ethel curtseyed and left.
Annabelle went to pour her tea and felt her right palm sting as she flexed it, a reminder of the earlier slap. She ignored the slight pain and pondered the situation.
She had spotted him as soon as she came out of the kitchen and had felt attracted to him. She should have ignored him and left Minnie to serve him, but she made a point to try and greet all customers when she was able. He was a first time customer too, so that made it doubly important that she greet him. Her notoriety was one of the coffee house’s selling points, people wanted to meet the Marquess’ daughter who had dared to enter trade.
It hadn’t always been so. First she had opened a tea room, hoping to attract women and couples but seemingly, women didn’t like her reduced status and avoided the place like the plague. Perhaps they thought that her bad luck would wear off onto them, or perhaps she was an uncomfortable reminder that in the eyes of the law, they were not people and under the right circumstances, they could be left as destitute as she was.
Either way, after three months with only a few male customers, she had decided to rebrand the tea room as a coffee house. Trade had increased almost immediately and being so close to Westminster Palace, she found herself attracting politicians. Now it was almost exclusively Whigs who frequented her establishment. They even held party meetings and debates there on occasion.
She had worked too hard and for too long to give this up now, no matter how handsome the Duke was. Love was a myth anyway, nothing more than a fairy tale that they spun to young girls, to ensure that they would marry young and remain ignorant until after the wedding.
Annabelle simply didn’t have time for fairy tales these days.
Richard’s glower ensured that even in the busy thoroughfare of Piccadilly, people cleared a path for him. He could have hailed a cab to take him home but he felt that he needed the walk to clear his head. However, he spent most of his walk counting off Miss Wyatt’s bad qualities, so by the time he arrived at number 4 St James Square, he was still in a frightful mood.
“Is that you, Richard?” he heard his mother, Lady Lavinia Armstrong, call from the rear parlour.
“It’s me.” He knew that he had little choice but to go and see her. He waved the butler away and removed and hung his own coat, then went to see his mother. She was sitting on the small sofa, embroidering something or other.
He bent to kiss her cheek and she favoured him with a smile.
“How was your meeting with Jonathan?” she asked.
“Aside from some rubbish about joining the Whigs, it was fine.”
“Well something has upset you,” she said pausing her embroidering to study him. “What happened?”
“Oh nothing, I just had the misfortune to meet perhaps the most disagreeable woman in London, that’s all.” Richard loosened his cravat and took the armchair next to his mother.
“Oh?” she put her sampler aside, eager to hear more.
“It’s nothing,” he repeated, leading Lavinia to believe that it was indeed something. “Just the proprietor of the coffee house we met at, that’s all.”
“You mean Annabelle?”
“I didn’t know the two of you were on first name terms,” he said, scowling.
“I can’t claim that we are close friends but she is a very nice woman. In fact I first met her when she was 11 and your father and I were staying with the family. We did not much care for the Marquess but his wife and daughter were a delight. After your father died, she sent me a very nice letter and some of my favourite baked treats. Her cooking is divine, so I often pop in to see her if I want to order something special, for a dinner party or such. She’s always been very gracious to me.”
“So, what did she do that was so awful?” Lavinia asked, picking up her sewing again. Given Annabelle’s beauty and reputation for refusing suitors, she could guess what had happened, but she did her best to hide her smile, although it wasn’t easy.
“Oh, nothing really. I tried to apologise for using her title when I addressed her and she reacted with anger. Odd woman.”
“Try not to be too hard on her, darling, from what I understand, life has not been kind to her.”
“What do you mean, ‘not been kind’?”
“Well I’m sure Jonathan told you about her father dying and her awful brother but what is less known, is the state of her mother. Quite insane, I hear. In fact, she doesn’t leave the house any longer.”
“How did you hear this?” Richard asked sitting forward.
“We share a doctor. It must be, oh, three years ago now, Dr Medway came to see me for a bout of influenza and he was sporting a fresh black eye. Naturally I asked him about it and he confided to me that the elder Lady Wyatt had given it to him earlier that day. She is prone to wild fits of anger, so he says, and frequently has to be restrained. She needs constant care and he attends the house three times a week to bleed her. Sometimes more if she has harmed herself or others in her anger. Since then I have spoken to Annabelle about it on occasion and whilst she played the illness down, she did confirm what the doctor had told me.”
Richard could vividly remember meeting his maternal grandfather, George, on occasion and how unsettled he had been by the man’s insanity.
“I wonder that she can afford a physician’s services; surely it would be cheaper for a barber or surgeon to attend?”
“I believe, like many of us, she wants the best for someone she cares for. Would you send me to a barber to save money?”
“Of course not but we do not live on the small profits of a coffee house. It’s sheer recklessness, is what it is.”
“I wonder that you let the expenses of someone who you have only met today, upset you so.” Lavinia said with a smile.
Richard scowled but didn’t reply.
Annabelle arrived at her home in Conduit Street at just after eight o’clock that evening, more than ready to head straight to bed but instead she headed to her mother’s rooms and knocked softly. A moment later the door opened slowly and Bessie Jones slipped out into the hall.
“How is she today, Jones?” Annabelle whispered.
“Not too bad, Ma’am. The doctor let her blood this afternoon and she’s been mostly docile ever since.”
“Has she eaten?”
“She has, a little lunch and some afternoon tea. Then I read to her until she dozed off.”
Annabelle looked at her mother’s bedroom door with longing, wishing that she was the woman that Annabelle remembered from her childhood but sadly, that woman was long gone. In her place was an ill-tempered, irascible and irrational woman, who disliked everyone but especially Annabelle. If she went inside now, she wouldn’t receive the warm welcome that she wanted and longed for and she had learned her lesson long ago; it was better not to even try.
She looked to Bessie, who had dark smudges under her eyes.
“I’ll have the kitchen send up her hot milk. Add the Laudanum to it and once she’s asleep, take the rest of the night off, Jones.”
“Oh no Ma’am-“
“Hush. You are good to care so much for my mother, but you must take care of yourself also.”
She could see that Bessie was wavering, clearly feeling the exhaustion herself.
“Why don’t you share dinner with me in the study this evening? I could use the company.”
Although she acted as nursemaid now, Jones was officially the Dowager Marchioness’s lady’s maid, the highest ranking servant currently employed in the house, and the only one who was comfortable sharing dinner with her mistress. Annabelle may consider herself a commoner these days but to her staff, she was still Lady Wyatt and no matter how much they respected her, they could never feel completely comfortable in her presence.
“I’d like that.” Jones smiled.
Annabelle headed downstairs to tell the kitchen maid.
Annabelle’s staff consisted of Jones, Sal, the house maid and Ruth, the kitchen maid. Since the house was woefully understaffed, the staff from the coffee house also lived here. It worked very well since they got accommodation for free, meaning that Annabelle could pay them a slightly lower wage. As well as her current household staff, Minnie, Ethel and Frank had all worked as servants for Annabelle’s parents and as such, were happy to help out in the house if needed.
When Annabelle’s father had died the staff had been faced with a choice; to stay with the new Marquess, or to leave with Annabelle and Eveline, her mother. Although the elder Lady Wyatt was no longer herself, the staff still felt loyal to her but Lady Annabelle had been so young that many of them were frightened to follow a young girl, especially one with no marriage prospects on the horizon.
Annabelle made her way into the study and sat behind the desk to open the day’s mail. Thankfully being summer, it was still light and she didn’t need to light a candle. There was her weekly bill from the baker, the grocer and the butcher. All she seemed to get these days was bills.
Still, she would be more than able to cover her expenses, if it weren’t for her mother’s physician bills. She couldn’t blame her mother though; no matter how hurtful her behaviour, it wasn’t her fault.
Dr Medway had suggested putting her in an asylum but Annabelle couldn’t do that. She had researched charitable institutions and she simply couldn’t allow her mother to go to a place that accepted paupers; the treatment was simply too inhumane and unsafe. The private asylums seemed acceptable but they cost more than Dr Medway’s services.
Once again, she cursed her father. It didn’t matter what doctors said about ‘hot blood’ and the ‘heat of madness’ she knew that her mother’s condition was his fault. Now he had died without leaving any provision for his wife, and Annabelle was having to work every hour that God sent to try keep a roof over their heads.
Jones was a Godsend. She had been Eveline’s lady’s maid since her mother was 15 and Jones was just 14. They had been more than just mistress and servant though and over the years, a friendship of sorts and a deep loyalty had formed between them. Were Jones not willing to care for her mother, Annabelle would have to pay at least two nurses. What's more, she used the time when Eveline was sleeping (which between the bloodletting and laudanum, was often) to keep Annabelle’s wardrobe up to date.
Annabelle hadn’t bought a new gown since she’d opened the coffee house but Jones used her many talents to update her wardrobe, carefully altering and adding to her dresses to keep up with fashion. She stayed clear of the modern penchant for wide gigot type sleeves, as they could be a hazard in the kitchen. She also didn’t wear as many petticoats as was the fashion, because that made manoeuvring between the tables difficult.
Annabelle set the bills aside for now, intending to deal with them on Sunday and poured herself a small brandy. Her one indulgence was a brandy when she got home.
She sat in one of the armchairs beside the fire and tried to relax. Unfortunately now that her mind wasn’t occupied, the first thing that came to mind was Richard Armstrong, and that slightly startled look that he wore when she had first approached his table.
She cursed herself and her weak mind, but the memory was so pleasant that she was unwilling to distract herself. Then, unbidden, the memory of his kiss came to the forefront of her mind. She had enjoyed it and a part of her felt awful for slapping him, but she couldn’t afford to lose her head now. Winter wasn’t far off and last year, she had needed to pawn a necklace to cover the additional heating costs for the house. She didn’t have much jewellery of any value left now.
Her hand went to her throat and she clasped the sapphire pendant that sat there. This was the only piece of real value now but she was loathe to part with it. It had been a present from her parents on her 14th birthday, although she knew that her mother had chosen it. ‘It reminded me of your eyes,’ her mother had said with pride as she placed it around her neck.
Not long after that, the mother that she knew was gone forever, and in her place was the deranged shrew that lived upstairs.
She was surprised to find herself voluntarily thinking of Richard Armstrong in an attempt to clear her mind of such unpleasant thoughts. The first thing that came to her was his lips and how soft they had felt when pressed against her own. She had wanted to kiss him, she admitted, and her reaction afterwards had been overzealous and uncalled for. She would apologise the next time she saw him, she decided.
Before she could indulge too much in that madness, Jones knocked on the door and came in.
Annabelle didn’t think of Richard again until she got into bed that evening and by then, she told herself that she was far too tired to redirect her thoughts and allowed herself a momentary indulgence.
I hope you enjoyed that. If you'd like to read more of Annabelle and Richard's story, The Reluctant Duchess is available on Amazon UK and Amazon US.
The Reluctant Duchess is currently charting at number 4 on the Amazon US Regency Romance chart! (31/1/12)