Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Love, Lies & Murder, Chapters 1-3

NEW RELEASE: Love, Lies and Murder by Catherine Winchester
Ooh, sounds scary! (If you scare easy, that is). But if you like a little bit of mystery and intrigue with your romance, this is definitely the book for you.

The Blurb: An unusual proposal and an intriguing whodunit set in the sumptuous Regency period, with a passionate love story at its centre.
Under the terms of his father’s Will, widower Alexander Cavendish must remarry before he turns 30, but the suspicions which surround his first wife’s death mean that his choices are limited. On impulse, he picks a stranger, offering her security and protection in return for marriage.

Helen Norton has few options in life and accepts the proposal, but she quickly comes to realise that everything in Alex’s home is not as it seems. When attempts are made on her life, Helen realises that if she is to stand a chance of surviving, she must solve the riddle of his first wife’s murder.

Is Alex a killer, or is he Helen’s devoted husband? Was his first wife an adulteress or simply a loving mother? And if not Alex, then who among this family of aristocrats had the motive to kill?

Chapter One ~ October 1796
Alexander Cavendish had a lot on his mind as he walked down Dover Street, so he didn’t notice the disruption up ahead until he was a few feet away. There was a cart in the road that seemed to have lost some of its load but what really caught his eye, was the argument between a man, who he assumed to be the cart driver, a boy of perhaps six years old and a young woman. The driver had a whip raised to strike the boy, who cowered in the gutter, clinging to the skirts of the woman. She stood between them both, seemingly undaunted by the threat of the whip.
“Can’t you see that he’s just a boy! He meant no harm!” she implored.
“I’ve lost ‘alf a load because o’ that boy and I’ll see ‘im get the thrashing ‘e deserves.”
“He does not deserve it and besides, your load is cotton; hardly a breakable substance.”
Her accent was refined and her clothes expensive, although also quite worn and not in keeping with this year’s fashions. The back of her skirt was now covered in the boy’s bloody handprints but if she had noticed, she didn’t seem to care.
Her red hair was swept back into a bun but a few tendrils had escaped, which framed her face in a most pleasing manner. He wondered what her hair would look like loose, flowing over her shoulders and down her back, and he had the odd thought that he would enjoy running his fingers through it.
He pushed the peculiar thought aside for now and stepped into the fray, none too soon as the man brought the whip down to strike the woman. Alex caught it and held on, despite the vicious sting it delivered to his palm. He noticed that the woman had flinched as the driver brought the lash down, but she hadn’t moved from protecting the boy.
“What’s going on here?” Alex demanded of the man as, after a few attempts, he was able to pull the whip from his grasp.
“That brat caused my ‘orse to rear and ruined my stock!” the driver answered, full of righteous indignation.
“He didn’t mean to cause your horse to rear!” the woman argued, then she turned to Alexander. “I saw it, Sir, and the boy was knocked, causing him to trip on the kerb and fall. It was an accident, and this oaf wants to beat him for something that could happen to anyone!” Her speech was impassioned and her chest heaved as she spoke.
Alexander looked from the boy to the man, to the woman, then finally back to the boy. He looked terrified.
“She’s right, that could happen to anyone,” Alexander finally chose a side and looked to the driver. “You should not bring a flighty horse into town, and you should be grateful that your horse didn’t kill the lad, rather than trying to whip him.” Alex looked to the boy. “Go on now, get home and get those bloody hands seen to.”
The boy didn’t need telling twice and was sprinting off down the road before anyone could object.
“Wot about my load! ‘Oo’s gonna pay for that, hey?”
Alex looked at the tradesman.
“After striking me and attempting to strike an unarmed woman, I should have you arrested but since I don’t have time for all that…” He fished a pound note out of his pocket and handed it to the man. “That will more than cover any damages.”
The driver’s eyes widened as he took the money and Alexander turned to the woman, just in time to see her heading off, now that the boy was safe.
Alex watched her as she walked off down the street, an insane idea occurring to him. On impulse, he followed her.
“Miss! I say, Miss!”
She stopped and looked back, her brow furrowing as she saw him jogging to catch up with her. When he drew near, he saw that she had a questioning look on her face.
“Why did you do that?” he asked.
“I had little choice. The boy had done nothing wrong, and I couldn’t stand by while that brute whipped him.”
“Are you always so unfazed by men wielding whips?”
“I don’t know,” she said with a small smile. “That was the first and I hope, the last time.”
Alex was silent for a moment as he considered the woman before him.
“I wonder if I might interest you in an early luncheon,” he said.
“Thank you, but I have errands to perform so I must get on.”
“Please, Miss, I have a matter I would like to discuss with you and there is a hotel just over the road, where we can get some refreshments and talk like civilised people.”
She hesitated, looking at the hotel then glancing down at her dress, noting the bloody handprints on the skirt where the boy had clung to her.
“Your attire is perfectly suitable,” he assured her and she gave him a startled look.
Finally she nodded. “Very well, but not too long; I really do have errands to run.”
“Of course.” He offered her his elbow like a gentleman should, and as her hand took a light hold of his arm, he felt as if he had received an electric shock, only far more pleasant. He found himself looking into her eyes and was pleased to note that she seemed just as affected by the touch as he.
He felt the silly impulse to reach out and brush the back of his index finger over the freckles on her cheeks, wondering if her skin would be as smooth as it looked. As strong as that urge was, only a fool would try and find out whilst standing in the middle of Piccadilly.
“Shall we?” he asked, breaking the spell, and they navigated across the busy road and entered the hotel.
He noticed many people give her dress and especially the bloodstains a sneering look but while she had surely noticed, she gave the appearance of being completely oblivious.
“So,” she said once they had been seated and had ordered tea and cake. “What is this matter you wish to discuss?”
“First, I have a few questions, if I may?”
She studied him for a moment so he took the opportunity to observe her also. Her hair was a light shade of red, almost like rose gold and it glistened in the light from the window. Her features were unusual and she would not be considered beautiful, however her sharp and strong features gave her a pleasing countenance.
“You may ask, Sir but I may not answer.”
“That sounds fair enough.” He smiled, enjoying her reply. “First, I would ask if you are of gentle birth?”
She regarded him with a cool eye before finally replying, “I am, although I am not gentry.”
“You are well educated though and from a good family; I can tell by your speech and accent.”
“I was the ward of Sir Geoffrey, Baronet Gardiner.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “Do I take it that he no longer supports you?”
“Sir Geoffrey died but you are correct, his son, the current Baronet, will not support me.”
That explained her fine but worn gown, he thought. “Why did he withdraw his support?”
“I never had his support. While Sir Geoffrey was alive, he had to tolerate my presence but once he died, that pretence died with him.”
“So you are not a fallen woman?”
“No,” she shook her head sadly. “Only the daughter of one.”
“So Sir Geoffrey…”
“Was my father, yes. My mother died in childbirth, so he took me in and raised me with the rest of his children.”
“And how old are you?”
“Almost twenty.”
“And the boy in the street?”
“He needed help, Sir. My circumstances may be reduced but I hope that I will never turn a blind eye to injustices.”
“So how do you support yourself now?”
He saw a blush rise in her cheeks and she folded her hands in her lap, as if to hide them. “I am employed by a dressmaker; I do the detailed work on the bodices of her more expensive gowns.”
He nodded, realising that she hid her hands because they were probably calloused from doing so much needlework.
“Do you know how to run a household?”
“I honestly do not see how it is any of your concern, Sir, but can assure you that I received the same education that all young aristocratic ladies receive, including instruction on how to correctly run a household.”
Alex sipped his tea as he considered the implications of what he was about to ask.
“Might I ask the reason for these questions?”
“I would like for you to marry me,” he said without preamble.
“I said, I want you to become my wife.”
“Sir, I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s Alex.”
“And I don’t know your character.”
“That is true enough but clearly you have fallen on hard times. For my part, my wife died two years ago and I have two sons who are desperately in need of a mother.”
“Forgive me for my impertinence, but with clothes as expertly tailored as yours, surely you can find a Society wife?”
“True enough but I don’t want just a wife, I want a mother for my boys.”
“Most women of my acquaintance are too flighty or superficial to properly raise a child. The few that persuaded me otherwise, I took to meet my boys. Despite their professed interest when I was around, when I left them alone with my boys, both ladies showed them either great indifference or a sharp tongue.”
“And you want someone who will love them?” she asked, her expression softening.
“Yes, as a mother should. You defended that child out there even although you didn’t know him, which shows me that you do have the temperament to care for my sons.”
“And what of… well…” Her embarrassment brought a rosy hue to her freckled cheeks, and it was quite pretty.
“Marital relations?” he asked kindly, putting her out of her misery.
“Well, yes.”
“At some point that will have to happen. I would like more heirs but for the moment, caring for my sons is paramount. I will not force my attentions on you, if that is your worry.”
“I…” she swallowed. “I really don’t know what to say, you have quite flummoxed me.”
“Yes,” he chuckled. “I do realise that my request is unusual.”
She risked a look at him and ventured a returning smile. “You could say that,” she agreed.
Smiling seemed to change the features of her face, he noticed. Her stern and strong countenance became open and her blue eyes twinkled.
“I know that this is an odd thing to ask of a stranger but I believe this could be a blessing for both of us; you would not have to worry about money and would be under my care and protection; and I can come and go on business, safe in the knowledge that Julian and Joseph are well cared for.”
“They are your sons?”
“Yes, although we usually call them Jules and Joe.”
“Tell me about them,” she asked, which pleased him.
“Joe is the eldest, he’s seven. He likes nature and reading. He, uh,” his warm expression faded. “He’s become a little introverted since his mother died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Jules is only four so he doesn’t remember his mother. He’s quite a rambunctious child, always running about, seemingly incapable of sitting still but he has a good heart.”
She nodded. “All right, I will consider your proposal, Sir, but I will need some time to think it over.”
That could be deadly.
“I’m afraid that I cannot grant you that luxury, Miss. I am to return to my estate tomorrow and it will be quite some time before I will return, so I wish to be married before we leave London. That way we can travel together, without any impropriety.”
“But no one can be married in a day!”
“I can obtain a special licence, then all we have to do is find a willing priest.”
“But my job, my room-”
“Can be easily quit. You are paid up in advance, are you not? You will need a new wardrobe, so your clothes can all be left, and I will compensate your employer for any hardship she may suffer.”
“Money does not solve all problems, Sir.”
“No, it doesn’t.” His expression darkened. “However, a lack of money can be the cause of many problems.”
She nodded and stood. “Thank you, Sir.”
“You’re refusing?” he asked, getting to his feet. He had expected some trepidation on her part but not an outright refusal.
“Not immediately,” she answered. “However I do believe that I shall take a turn around the block to clear my head and think about your offer. I shall return here, one way or another.”
As much as he wanted her to stay so that he could continue to convince her, he knew that he had already made his best arguments. If he pressed her to remain with him, he would look desperate and she could begin to question his motives.
“Very well. I will remain here and await your return.”
She curtseyed and left him, holding herself like a queen, despite her old gown and the bloody handprints. He felt the fact that a woman with so little money seemed not to care that her dress had been ruined, spoke volumes for her character. His money would be a tool to her but not her reason for marrying him, as he had felt was the case with so many other young ladies.
He realised that he had been impulsive in asking her but he had to ask someone.
His father's will had stated that in order to inherit the bulk of his father’s estate from the trust, he must be married by his 30th birthday. Having married when he was 23, he had assumed that the clause was satisfied. When his lawyer had written to him two months ago, informing him that after studying the will again since the trust was about to be released to him, he had discovered that the wording said that Alex must be married on his 30th birthday, rather than by it.
It didn’t seem to matter that he had been married or that he already had heirs, if he wasn’t still married when he turned 30, his estate would remain in trust, and he wouldn’t allow his uncle to waste another penny of his inheritance. His uncle was such a disagreeable man that Alex hated having to ask for money. So much so that he had built himself a thriving shipping business and therefore didn’t need money from the trust, but it galled him that his uncle had more say over his inheritance than Alex himself did. He was determined that he would fulfil that clause and then cut his uncle from his life completely.
That was why he had spent most of the past two months in London, attending dinner parties and dances, searching for a wife.
As he had explained to the girl, a wife wasn’t enough though, for his children needed a mother. He couldn’t bring a woman into their lives who might be neglectful or worse still, favour her own children over Julian and Joseph. Of the few women he had met who did seem to have a genuinely kind and caring nature, and probably would be good mothers to his boys, their families forbade his attentions, protecting their daughters from him and the scandal that surrounded him.
He couldn’t blame them.
This woman, and he was surprised to realise that he hadn’t even asked her name yet, she had the breeding, the courage and the love necessary join his family.
It would cause gossip, no doubt, but he was used to that. His position and wealth assured that he and his family weren’t banished from society but that did little to stop them from talking behind his back.
Helen was glad to leave the hotel and step into the cool autumnal air. Although the hotel had been kept at a pleasant temperature, she felt stifled in there, as if the walls were closing in.
It wasn’t Alex per se, more the pressure of making such an important decision so quickly. Plus, she couldn’t deny that something about his presence drew her in. When she had lain her hand on his elbow earlier, as they crossed the street, the sensation had been completely new to her but very pleasant.
Which is why she felt that it was far better to make this decision away from him, where he and his strong presence couldn’t influence her or confuse her emotions.
She had been alone for a little over three years now, trying to make her way in the world but only succeeding in keeping her head above water. Her job paid a fair wage but not enough to live well. Her room and board took most of her wage, and then it was just one room in a widow’s home. She saved what she could each month but she knew that should something terrible happen, that should she be unable to work, or perhaps require a doctor, her meagre savings would be wiped out. She had tried applying for positions as a governess or companion, but it seemed her siblings had put the word about that she was not to be hired, for everyone had refused her.
Alex could be the answer to her problems. His money, for she could tell just by looking at him that he was wealthy, would mean security. She need never worry about a loss of earnings or an unexpected expense again. She could also tell that he was powerful, for his air as he intervened in the earlier altercation, was that of a man who was used to being obeyed. If she were his wife, no one would ever dare harm her, nor would they insult her (at least not to her face).
He had long dark hair that was tied back with a leather strap at the nape of his neck, but looked as if it would brush his shoulders when loose. His chiselled, razor sharp features combined with a scowl that could turn milk sour, gave him quite a dour look. His day old stubble added to the general appearance of giving him a slightly dangerous air, while the dark circles under his eyes made him look sad.
When he spoke of his sons though, his usually icy blue eyes lit up, implying that they might even have the ability to twinkle, under the right circumstances. His downturned lips also curled up in a subtle smile and his posture, so rigid since she first met him, had relaxed.
She had the distinct impression that he had very little joy in his life, other than his children.
But could she marry him, a man she didn’t even know?
He had said that he wouldn't pressure her but that at some point, he would want more children. His appearance wasn’t unpleasant and he certainly wasn’t repulsive, so she felt that she could handle a physical relationship in time.
The problem was, she didn’t love him.
When she was younger, having seen the relationship between her father and his wife, she had vowed to marry only for love. Sir Geoffrey and Iris, Lady Gardiner had married because their parents deemed the match to be a good one, not because they held each other in any affection.
Once Sir Geoffrey had died though, she had given up all hopes of marriage, content to remain a spinster for the rest of her days. The main reason for that decision was the poverty that she saw all around her. Since she had never been presented at court, finding a husband of means was out of the question.
She could probably find a decent, working class man to marry her, she may even find someone who she loved, however she couldn’t subject a child to the misery that she saw daily. Her wage hardly supported herself and even with a husband’s wage as well, it wouldn’t be enough to support two, three or more children. What if one of them became sick and they couldn’t afford a doctor?
Wealthier families often seemed to limit the number of children they had and she supposed that to spare their wives, the husbands found mistresses, as her father had found her mother. Working class men didn’t have that option however and even if they did, she wouldn’t want her husband to father illegitimate children. It had been bad enough for her growing up with wealth, so she could only imagine how much harder the stigma would be for a low born child.
That had changed now though, for she had a wealthy man offering her his hand. His children would never go hungry. Even if she had a dozen, they would probably never want for anything.
As she rounded the corner, she noticed that she was approaching the hotel once more, and briefly wondered how she had returned so quickly. She pushed that thought aside however.
She realised that this offer was likely to be the best she was ever going to get, and to refuse it simply because she wasn’t in love would be madness.
Alex didn’t seem like a tyrant or a bad man although granted, she wasn’t basing that opinion on very much.
He seemed like a man who carried the world on his shoulders and simply wanted her to help ease one part of that burden; helping him to care for his children. She could do that; she loved children.
In return, she would have security, comfort and eventually, her own children.
She paused at the entrance to the hotel and looked up at the façade, gathering her courage to make one of the most important decisions of her life.
Chapter Two
She had been gone for far longer than it should take to walk around the block, and Alex was just beginning to doubt that she would return, when she walked through the main doors.
He had moved from the dining room to the reception area, where he could clearly see her as she entered, and he rose from the armchair he had claimed, as she entered. She headed into the dining room until she spotted him, and changed course towards him.
“Did you enjoy the walk?” he asked.
“I can’t say that I can remember very much of it, I was rather preoccupied.”
“Of course.” He gestured for her to take a seat and sat down again when she did. “So, did you reach a decision?”
“I did, yes. I will marry you.”
Alex visibly relaxed and smiled. “Thank you, you won’t regret this.”
She didn’t look certain but then he could hardly blame her for having reservations.
“So what happens now?” she asked.
“First, I think we should visit the Doctors Commons and obtain a special licence. I will find a priest to perform the ceremony, then we can be married tomorrow morning, before we leave.”
She nodded her understanding.
“Then we must find a dressmaker and get you measured. Hopefully they will have a few dresses that can be easily altered by tomorrow, the rest can be sent on to you. After that, your time is your own; I will arrange for the wedding announcement to be printed and collect you from your lodgings tomorrow morning.”
She swallowed down her misgivings and attempted a smile. “Very well. Shall we leave now?”
“Of course.” They got to their feet and Alex once again noticed the bloody hand prints on her dress. “Although perhaps we could visit the dressmaker first.”
She looked down at herself and smiled. “I suppose I do look a sight.”
“But a very pleasing sight,” he assured her. “And now, Miss, I must ask you something of great importance.”
“Your name,” he smiled. “I will need it for the licence.”
“It is Helen, Sir, Helen Norton.”
“The face that launched a thousand ships,” he said with mirth, which seemed to confuse her. “I own a shipping company,” he explained.
She smiled, enjoying the joke.
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Norton. I am Alex Cavendish.”
“And I am very pleased to meet you, Mr Cavendish.”
He offered her his elbow as they left the hotel and he was pleased to note that the pleasing tingle he had felt the first time she touched him, hadn’t diminished.
After leaving Alex, Helen had gone to see her employer to hand in her notice. Mrs Fuller was both pleased with her news and nervous for her young employee but Helen did her best to reassure the woman. Although technically Mrs Fuller was Helen’s boss, she had always been a little protective of her and their relationship was closer than that of mistress and worker.
She had tried to give Helen dresses on occasion, ones that perhaps hadn’t been collected or had been returned (although the latter was rare) but Helen always refused. Knowing what her family had done to her, Mrs Fuller understood her desire for independence, because charity could be withdrawn at any moment, for any number of reasons and if you had come to rely on it, the effect could be devastating.
So Helen lived very frugally, saving every penny that she could and refusing assistance from anyone.
Mrs Fuller knew that Helen had fallen ill shortly after she arrived in London, and the idea of suffering a second such incident had terrified her and was the reason that she was so careful with money.
That she wouldn’t have to worry about finances in the future pleased Mrs Fuller, even if she was marrying a stranger.
They had parted with no hard feelings and promises to write regularly, although it worried them both that Helen didn’t even know her address, nor even which county she would be living in.
That night had been a long one for Helen, as she worried over the wisdom of her decision and whether she could go through with it. She ate little at dinner and allowed the other lodgers and landlady to talk amongst themselves. Not wanting to face awkward questions, she hadn’t told them of her plans to marry in the morning, only that she was leaving to visit a sick relative and didn’t know when she would return. The landlady explained that her room couldn’t be kept past the end of the week, when her rent was paid up to, but Helen told her that she understood.
Whether this was the right decision or a monumental mistake, she wouldn’t be coming back either way.
A parcel came that evening which she opened in her room, and found a beautiful lavender dress inside, which was cinched just below her breasts and had a full, flowing skirt. The shade was one of the few which looked good with her ginger hair and she wondered if he had known that, or if this was a lucky coincidence.
The brief letter enclosed was from Alex and told her to wear it in the morning, reiterating that he would collect her at 9am. He had sighed it ‘fond regards’ and added a ‘P.S. I hope you aren’t too nervous about tomorrow, I promise that I don’t bite’.
She had smiled at the thoughtfulness of adding such a note and felt a tiny bit easier.
She awoke early the following morning and packed her few belongings. She didn’t pack any of her dresses but left them for the next occupant of the room, who could use them or throw them away. To avoid awkward questions, she put an old dress on for breakfast, knowing that everyone would have left the house or be otherwise occupied by 9am, when Alex came for her.
When she returned to her room, she donned the new gown and wished that she could do something more with her hair. The bun looked fine usually but in such a pretty gown, she felt sadly unable to live up to its beauty.
At ten to the hour, she headed downstairs in her new dress and with her one bag, to wait in the street for Alex. He was prompt and smiled as he leapt from the carriage to greet her.
“You look lovely,” he told her.
Helen simply smiled and allowed him to help her into the carriage. She was too nervous to talk during the journey and at the church, only spoke when the priest prompted her during the ceremony. As Alex took her hand to slip the ring on her finger, she stared down at their joined hands, marvelling at the warm feelings that his touch excited within her. 
Other than Alex, Helen and the priest, only two other men were in the church to act as witnesses, and it didn’t seem that Alex knew them any more than Helen did.
They signed the register, left the church and as she climbed into the carriage, Helen let out a long sigh of relief.
“You are sorry you did this now, aren’t you?” Alex said, his expression inscrutable.
“No.” She turned to face him. “I actually feel better than I have since I agreed to it, as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. For better or for worse, it’s done now and I have no choice but to make the best of things.” She offered him a tentative smile.
“Good.” Alex returned her smile.
“I do however, think it’s time that you told me a few details about my life from this point onward.”
“Such as?”
“Where we are to live, for one, and I would like to hear more about your sons.”
So Alex told her a little of the house and its history.
“The land has been in our family since the 15th century but it was my father and grandfather who rebuilt the house in its present form. My grandfather built the west wing and then after his death, my father knocked down the original house and built the north, south and east wings. He improved and added to the stables and the hunting lodge. The new wings were built in the Baroque style, which is still fashionable and he had the west wing altered to match the new additions. The grounds and house were almost an obsession with him.”
Helen listened with interest but she couldn’t help but notice how coolly he spoke about his home. He continued to tell her details, about the green room, the red room, the great hall, the library, the marble floors, the colonnade, the expensive panelling and the imported rugs.
Then he moved onto the grounds, telling her about the man-made cascading waterfall in the grounds, the lakes, the arboretum and pinetum.
“What's your favourite room?” she asked as he paused.
Alex looked taken aback by the question. “I…”
“There must be a room where you like spending your time, more than any other?” 
“I suppose… the library.”
“Why?” she asked, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees.
“It’s in the west wing, built by my grandfather to house his collections of art and books but he paid attention to detail. The library itself is large, probably half the size of the Great Hall and the fireplace alone is the size of a four poster bed, but the room doesn’t feel big. Somehow it’s a very welcoming room. The shelves stand twelve feet high and each set has a sort of mechanised ladder on runners, that can be moved along the length. I used to love climbing the ladder then seeing how far I could push myself. The windows are truly massive and in the ceiling he built a glass dome, to allow as much light in as possible. When the sun sets in the evenings, it paints the library in a riot of red and orange hues.”
For the first time since he had begun talking about it, his deep voice was filled with warmth and Helen found herself looking forward to seeing the library, more than anything else.
His estate, Howard House, was near Crowham, on the Lancashire coast and he described the rugged landscape as being in stark contrast to the carefully manicured grounds. Once again he spoke with a warmth for the landscape that he didn’t seem feel when he spoke of the grounds.
They stopped for lunch at a coaching inn while the horses were rested and when they resumed their journey, Alex began to ask her about her past.
“Were you presented at Court?” he began after they had settled.
“No. I was due to be but father died a month before. Is that important?” She knew that entrance to many places in Society, such as Almack's, would be barred to anyone who hadn’t been presented at court.
“No. Since my wife died, we don’t socialise very much and even if we did…”
His words trailed off and she wondered what he was going to say. If he believed that his wealth would grant him (and her) entrance, he was sorely mistaken. The lady patronesses of Almack's, who approved every member, weren’t likely to be swayed by money. Power, yes, but money alone, no.
She didn’t mention it though. She did however, wonder if perhaps her being the daughter of a Baron might be an attraction for him. It wasn’t a high rank but many of those in trade wanted, and indeed gained approval, by marrying into aristocratic families.
Sir Geoffrey had never claimed her as his own in the eyes of the law, so Helen wasn’t even entitled to use the courtesy title of Lady, as her half-sisters were. She would be of little help to Alex in improving his social standing; indeed due to the circumstances of her birth, she might even be a hindrance to him.
“Tell me about your father.” Although he was asking, it was stated as an order. Helen guessed that he was used to people doing as he said and so asking was unnecessary. She ignored it for now but when they were more comfortable with each other, she would let him know that she didn’t like being ordered.
Still, her father was one of her favourite subjects and she could talk about him for hours, which she proceeded to do. He was a kindly man who had always showed her special attention, above and beyond what he showed to his other children. He said it was because he knew that they were unkind to her. Although his attentions ignited their jealousy and made her siblings behave even worse towards her, Helen idolised him and was happy to put up with their teasing, bullying and insults, as long as she got to spend time with Sir Geoffrey.
Sometimes she felt that her father was the only person in the entire house who wanted her there; even the staff looked down on her but not him, never him.
“I’m surprised you don’t have more personal possessions,” Alex noted. “Most women seem to keep many things that remind them of loved ones.”
“I wasn’t allowed,” she stated. “I was given just one chest to fill with my possessions, so many reminders of him had to be left in favour of necessities. They watched me as I packed, making sure that I couldn’t take any of the expensive gifts he had given me.”
Her expression grew sombre.
“What kinds of things did you leave?” he asked.
“Mostly items that were too heavy, mainly books, although there was also an exquisite music box. It was one of the first ever made, the mechanism was fascinating, and so beautiful in its intricacy. He explained exactly how it worked to me, taking the panels off so that I could see everything.”
“And the other things?”
“A pair of mother of pearl hair combs, a small Renaissance painting, and a few pieces of jewellery, like the pearls he bought me for my debut at Court. I asked if I could take one of the cabinet miniatures of Sir Geoffrey but they refused. I did manage to take a gold locket he gave me, which had my mother’s picture in it, but I had to sell that soon after I got to London. I couldn’t find a position and then I had an accident, so I was unable to walk for a time. I needed a doctor to set the bone straight for me so I kept the picture but sold the locket, to pay the doctor and keep myself until I was healed.”
“I’ll replace the locket for you,” he said.
“You don’t need to do that,” she said, feeling as if he pitied her. “Honestly.”
“But I haven’t given you a wedding gift yet, and can think of nothing better than preserving the memory of your mother for you, can you?”
“I don’t need a wedding gift.”
“Please, Helen, this isn’t a matter of need. I would like to do this for you.”
She knew it would be churlish to continue to disagree. “Then thank you. I want you to know however, that you don’t need to buy my loyalty, nor could you.”
“Glad to hear it.”
They stopped at a coaching inn that night and while Helen stood by the stairs, where Alex had told her to wait, he organised two rooms for them and one for the driver and his valet. Once he had the keys, he showed her up and stayed to make sure that she had everything she needed.
“They are bringing one of your trunks up as we speak-”
“One of mine? But I don’t have any?” She held up her bag, which contained clean underwear, soap and her toothbrush, everything that she would need.
“As well as other dresses, I ordered you some necessities and luxuries before we left London. Enough to see you through for a few weeks,” he assured her.
“Honestly, this is too much.”
“This is only a small fraction of what my wife deserves,” he assured her, carrying on before she could object. “Now, I know you don’t have a lady’s maid and I assume you would like to hire your own once we get settled, but I spoke with the owner and if you need any help dressing in the morning, his wife is happy to assist you.”
His consideration touched her. “Thank you, but I think I can manage.”
He smiled. “I never much liked being dressed either. My valet only cares for my wardrobe.” He took his watch from his waistcoat pocket and checked it. “Would you like to freshen up before dinner? I don’t think changing will be necessary.”
“Um-“ She was cut off as there came a knock on the door.
Alex opened it to a porter and the driver, who carried a trunk between them.
“Where would you like it?” Alex asked Helen.
“Oh, just by the door, please.”
They deposited the case and Alex handed them each a coin as they left.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” The porter said, touching a hand to his hat.
Helen became very still and Alex had realised the mistake immediately. He closed the door behind the men and turned to her.
“Please don’t be angry,” he begged, taking a step towards her.
“You’re a Duke?” she asked.
He nodded but Helen remained silent for a long time, as she thought through the implications.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Honestly, I thought it might frighten you off.”
She made her way to the bed and sat down, since it was closer than the chair. “You were right.” She sounded a little panicked.
Alex came and sat beside her but he left a foot of space between them.
“I will be a Duke’s wife,” she said the words slowly, as though trying to decide how she felt about that. “My father is only a fifth degree peer and I am illegitimate, while you are one step away from royalty!”
“You will make a fine Duchess,” he tried to assure her. “My first wife’s family was in trade.”
“But she wasn’t illegitimate, was she?”
“Well no, but she didn’t have your breeding, your training.”
“But the scandal, Alex, it will ruin your family.”
“As I told you, we don’t socialise much these days anyway, and my rank is high enough that I can get away with much more than many men could.”
Helen began to laugh as she remembered her earlier thought, that perhaps her ancestry had attracted him.
“Helen?” He looked worried by her behaviour, so as best she could between laughs, she explained her earlier thought, that being in trade, he might be attracted to the fact that her father was a Baronet.
He shared her mirth, thankfully not offended by her thinking him a tradesman.
“It’s not too late,” Helen said once her mirth had died. “We haven’t consummated the marriage; you can still change your mind.”
Alex took her hand.
“I have no intention of doing that. Whatever your past, it’s the woman you are that appeals to me, and I like what I see more and more.”
“I’m a Duchess,” Helen whispered, as if she was afraid to say it out loud.
“Yes you are,” he assured her. “And since you brought it up, while I do intend to honour my promise and not visit you at night before you are comfortable, we do need to let the rest of the world believe that we have consummated our union. As such, I would like to accompany you back here after dinner and remain for a while. Just for appearances sake.”
Helen nodded. “Of course, that makes perfect sense. And thank you for not pressuring me.”
He squeezed her hand. “Now, I think that perhaps you could do with a stiff drink, so how would it be if we forgo washing up before dinner and make our way to the dining room?”
Helen nodded. There were so many implications to her new title that she couldn’t think clearly at the moment. Besides, a drink sounded just what she needed right now.
Chapter Three
It was a three day journey to his estate, so they would have to stay at coaching inns for two nights, hopefully arriving in Crowham by the third evening.
Helen didn’t quite know how she felt about being a Duchess but so far at least, she was enjoying being a married woman.
Alex had returned to the room with her last night after their meal, but he had been true to his word and had not lain a hand on her. She was a little disappointed that he didn’t but overall, she was glad. They may be married but she still knew hardly anything about him.
Today she hoped to ask him some more questions about his past while they travelled, to try and find out what kind of man he was and what experiences had made him that way.
“So, do you live with any family, other than your boys?”
“Too many,” Alex sighed. “My sister, my brother comes and goes, my mother claims not to like the Dower House so hasn’t moved. Then there’s my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law and the occasional business associate.”
“Your in-laws still live with you?”
“I'm afraid so. My wife’s father died a few years after we were married and she invited them to come and live with us. I can hardly turn them out now, can I?”
“No, of course not. I'm sorry, I didn’t mean to imply-”
“You didn’t. It’s a far from ideal situation but every time I offer to get them a house in town or in London, they refuse. They say that they feel closer to… well, it’s complicated.”
She felt for him. Being an aristocrat wasn’t all fun and games, it came with a lot of responsibilities too, and now he was responsible for a family that wasn’t even his.
“You must have loved your wife a great deal,” she said.
Alex gave her a sharp look, then turned to look out of the carriage window.
Refusing to be intimidated by him, she gathered her courage. “How did she die?”
His frown deepened but he didn’t glare at her again.
“She died in a fall,” he grudgingly admitted and Helen began to feel that she might have pushed her luck too far.
She learned the names of his relatives that day (although she was sure that she would never remember them all) and brief descriptions of their characters, but that was it for personal information. The only topic that he would open up about was his boys, and so they spent most of the day with him telling her stories of their more memorable antics.
As she got into bed that night, she couldn’t help but wonder why Alex was so guarded about his family. What made him so defensive when she asked about any of them. She assumed that the loss of his wife was still painful to him but surely discussing his brother or mother-in-law couldn’t be difficult, could it? Maybe he just wasn’t the type to open up easily.
That explanation didn’t feel right but she had no better rational.
The next day, Alex was even less verbose and it seemed that the closer they got to his country home, the more introverted he became.
Today was truly an autumnal day as well; a cold fog had greeted them when they awoke that morning, and it had never completely burned off. Helen felt that it fit the tense atmosphere in their carriage.
As what little sun they could see grew low on the horizon, Helen glimpsed a massive house through the trees, that could only be Howard Hall.
It was both beautiful and intimidating at the same time. Perhaps it was the mist, or the mood in the carriage, but Helen also felt that it had a menacing air about it, that even the warm lights from the windows couldn’t eliminate.
Feeling foolish for harbouring such flights of fancy, she watched the house as best she could until they stopped out front, but the ominous feeling never left her. Alex helped her down from the carriage and Helen took a long, hard look at the house trying to decide what it was that made it seem forbidding, but she could determine no feature that might be responsible.
Alex came up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“It’s beautiful.” It wasn’t a lie but as he guided her inside, she couldn’t help the small shudder that coursed through her body. Alex gave her a quizzical look. “The mist must be making the night chill before its time,” she lied, drawing her cloak tighter around herself as proof.
He nodded, accepting her explanation, although he didn’t appear to believe her.
They headed into the entrance hall, where the staff were all lined up to greet them. Alex introduced her to the butler, Mr Graves and housekeeper, Mrs Watson, who both told her ‘Good evening, Your Grace’. The rest of the staff were then dismissed.
When they had stopped at an inn for the second night, Alex didn’t ask her to wait by the stairs and she had realised why Alex hadn’t wanted his conversation overheard the night before, lest the owner give away that he was a Duke. Unfortunately Alex’s instructions hadn’t made it as far as the porter and since then, he and his staff had dropped the pretence and everyone was calling them ‘Your Grace’ or ‘Your Graces’.
“Please, Mr Graves, Mrs Watson, call me Ma’am, and ask the other staff to do the same,” she requested.
“Your Grace, I mean, Ma’am,” Mrs Watson stumbled over her words. “Are you sure?” She looked to be in her 50s, with black hair greying at the temple and pulled back into a severe bun. She was wearing a stiffly starched black dress with a high collar. If she could be summed up in a single word, it would be austere.
“Very. This is to be my home now and I don’t want to stand on ceremony here.”
“As you wish, Ma’am,” Mr Graves bowed his head in deference. He was a tall man, slightly older than Mrs Watson and with hair so grey that it was almost completely white. He however seemed more relaxed than his counterpart.
“We have unpacked the clothes that you sent ahead and they are hanging in the closet in your dressing room,” Mrs Watson explained. “We’ve delayed dinner, which will be served in an hour, if that suits. I have also placed an advertisement for a lady’s maid in the local paper and will collect the replies for you. In the meantime, Forbes, the Dowager Duchess’s lady’s maid, will offer you any assistance that you require.”
“Thank you, Mrs Watson.”
“Where is everyone?” Alex asked.
“The ladies are dressing for dinner, Mr Cavendish is reading in his rooms and Mr Russell is in the library.”
“Mr Russell?” Alex asked.
“Yes, Your Grace,” Mr Graves stepped forward. “He arrived a week ago and the Mrs and Miss Russell invited him to stay.
Alex frowned but didn’t comment any further.
“Would you like to see your rooms?” Mr Graves suggested to Helen.
“Actually, I was wondering if the children are still up?”
Alex checked his watch. “Julian will be in bed but Joseph might still be awake. It might be better to meet them together tomorrow morning, and they shouldn’t be grumpy in the morning.”
Helen nodded. “Of course.”
She was feeling particularly overwhelmed as it was. The Baronet’s bastard was about to meet two new families and try to prove to them that she could be a Duchess. As much as she wanted to meet the children, she wasn’t sure how much more she could handle in one evening.
“Come on, I'm sure you’d like to freshen up before dinner.” Alex placed his hand in the small of her back and guided her across the marble hall and upstairs, following after Mrs Watson.
Her room was enormous, easily the size of the ground floor of the boarding house where she lived in London. The dark wooden floor was mostly covered in thick, opulent carpets that looked Oriental. In the middle of the room stood a four poster bed that was easily six feet wide, with thick, red velvet curtains pulled back and secured to each post. The bed curtains matched those at the window, which were also secured back with corded rope.
On the left of the room was a cluster of chairs around the window and a doorway, which Mrs Watson explained was the dressing room. On the right stood a large fireplace in which a fire had already been lit; it was surrounded by another group of armchairs and between the fire and the external wall, was the room’s third door.
“That leads to His Grace’s room,” Mrs Watson informed her. “There is some warm water in the dressing room for you and if you require anything, just pull one of these.” She showed Helen the rope by the door and beside the bed, which could be used to summon a servant.
“Is there anything else you require, Your- Ma’am?”
“No, thank you, Mrs Watson.”
“Would you like Forbes to help you dress for dinner?”
“Thank you but no. I am rather tired and think it best to keep things simple for this evening.”
“Very well, Ma’am.”
The housekeeper curtseyed then left and Helen remained where she was, examining the room. Alex came up behind her and undid her cloak, taking it from her shoulders and throwing it over the end of the bed. Helen still hadn’t moved so Alex came to stand in front of her, placing his hands on her shoulders.
“Are you all right?”
Helen looked up into his eyes. “I think I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
He looked hurt for a moment before he smoothed his features out. “How so?”
“I don’t belong in a house like this. Everything about it, from the huge glass dome in the entrance hall, to the marble floors, just reinforces that I don’t belong here. My father had a good living, Alex, but this is… this is pure opulence. I feel like a donkey in a thoroughbred stable.”
Alex smiled. “Can I let you in on a secret?”
Helen nodded. “I don’t like this house either. Nothing about it, save for perhaps the west wing, is how I would have done it. It’s a house, nothing more, simply a roof over my head. No matter how opulent, think of it in those simple terms and perhaps you’ll feel less intimidated.”
Helen swallowed down her fears and nodded.
“Now, come, I’ll show you my room. You need to be familiar with it even if you don’t visit me.”
He went to the door by the fireplace and turned the key in the lock. “I’ll leave the key in your side,” he told her as he opened the door.
His room was a mirror image of hers, set up in exactly the same way, only his was decorated in shades of deep, emerald green furnishings and drapes.
“This room suits my colouring much better,” she said, running her hand over the back of a wing back armchair by the fireplace.
“We can swap,” he told her.
“Oh, no, I didn’t mean- it was just a thoughtless comment. Orange hair tends to clash with most shades, so I’m a little more attuned to colour than many people.”
“I honestly don’t mind,” he assured her.
“Neither do I,” she smiled, trying to make him believe that it had just been an unthinking observation. She would no more throw him out of his own room than she could fly. There was one thing that gave her pause over her room however. She turned away and went to look at the artwork that hung either side of the door that led to the main hallway, so she didn’t have to look at him.
“Was, uh, my room… was it your wife’s room?”
“No. She preferred the south wing.”
She immediately felt more relaxed. She was already trying to take over the poor woman’s home and children, she wasn’t sure that she could take over her room as well.
“Well, I’d better go and get changed.” She turned to him and smiled.
“Everything will be all right,” he told her. “They’re just people, like you and don’t forget, my wife’s family were in trade, as am I now. You have nothing to prove to these people.”
She didn’t believe him but she appreciated his attempt to reassure her.
“Knock when you’re ready and we’ll go down together.”
Helen nodded her understanding and headed back to her own room.
As she and Alex swept down the grand central staircase, for a few moments Helen felt a little like a fairy-tale princess.
She had chosen a simple but beautiful gown, in almost the same shade of green as his room. She had found that she had a startling array of dresses and wondered how he had got so many ordered and finished so quickly. She knew from her work with Mrs Fuller that many dressmakers kept a few pre-made dresses, ones that could be easily altered to fit almost any figure, but she couldn’t imagine any dressmaker keeping so many gowns ready to be altered. To get this many outfits on such short notice, he must have visited half a dozen dressmakers with her measurements.
She kept her hair simple, using two decorative combs from her dressing table to hold the front of her hair back, and then securing it into a simple bun. There were beaded necklaces and other assorted jewellery but she opted not to wear any. As she slipped on her emerald slippers, she caught a glimpse of herself in the long dressing room mirror, and couldn’t help but admire what she saw there.
She was still no beauty but the dress did its utmost to compliment her. The deep green flattered her hair, while the dress, ruched over her breasts and pinched in by the waist, added to her small bust and gave her curves she did not naturally possess, making her look and feel like a young woman. It had been a long time since she had worn anything quite so beautiful, if ever.
She had knocked on the adjoining door to Alex’s room and he had come through seconds later. He was dressed in black trousers and frock coat, with a charcoal grey waistcoat, white shirt and cravat. The outfit flattered his figure, framing his wide shoulders, drawing the eye to his narrow waist and the high collar and cravat, not to mention his dark hair, framed his freshly shaved face beautifully. All in all, he cut a very attractive figure and Helen felt her heart skip a beat and a fluttering sensation form in her stomach.
She had been in his company for three days now but hadn’t noticed that he was handsome. Perhaps the thick coat he wore and the tiredness that travelling inevitably induced, helped to hide his appeal, or perhaps she had just been too preoccupied to notice.
He also had an odd look in his eyes as he took in her appearance. His light blue eyes, often so cold looking, now seemed almost predatory, like a wolf that had spotted its prey. To her surprise, rather than frightening her, his possessive gaze made the fluttering in her stomach go lower, igniting a delicious ache in her loins.
He offered her his elbow without speaking and together, they headed down to dinner. She had never been this close to him before and she had to say that his scent was very pleasing; a mixture of musk, rosewood and something warm and homey, perhaps cinnamon. She inhaled deeply.
The feeling she had as they came down, that of being a princess, fled as soon as they entered the blue room, to find his family sharing a drink before dinner. Conversation ceased immediately and all eyes focused on Helen, as they wondered exactly who Alex’s new bride was.
Helen looked them over as well, and a few of the women’s expressions said that they definitely found her wanting.
The people could be divided into two groups, those with dark or black hair and olive skin, like Alex, and those with pale complexions and hair ranging from light chestnut to light brown. She guessed that they were his wife’s family.
Alex introduced her to them and then began to introduce his family to her. After each introduction, she made sure to repeat their names in her head to help her remember.
“This is my brother, Clarence Cavendish.”
Helen curtseyed. “Very nice to meet you, Mr Cavendish.”
“Oh no, we’re family now, Your Grace, please call me Clarence.” He had very similar colouring to Alex but is eyes were green and he had a dimple in his chin. He also wasn’t quite as handsome as his brother, but it was a close run thing.
“Very well, Clarence, if you will call me Helen.”
“This is my mother, Pearl, the Dowager Duchess of Crowham,” Alex explained. She had a little grey in her dark hair but overall, seemed very young to be a widow. Her gown was far more ornate than her daughter-in-law’s and Helen began to wish that she had chosen to wear something more intricate. Her expression was far from friendly either; in fact she looked rather displeased. Her eyes were blue like Alex’s, but in a shade so pale that it only served to make her demeanour seem even colder.
“Very pleased to meet you, Your Grace,” Helen said. As she curtseyed, she missed the glare that Alex gave his mother but it had no impact on the older woman anyway, as she remained mute.
“This is my sister, Lady Rose Cavendish,” Alex continued.
Rose had got to her feet for the greeting and gave her a curtsey. “Very pleased to meet you, Your Grace.”
“Please call me Helen,” she looked around the others. “Everyone.”
Alex’s mother sniffed but made no further comment.
“Helen, I’d like you to meet my late wife’s family. This is my mother-in-law, Anna Russell, my sister-in-law, Jane and her brother, Milton.”
The ladies bobbed while Milton took her hand.
“A pleasure to meet you,” Helen smiled.
“The pleasure is all ours,” Milton said in a seductive voice, as he kissed the back of her hand. He had the same predatory look in his eyes as Alex had earlier but unlike then, it left Helen feeling a little disquieted.
Alex placed a possessive hand on her shoulder and she stepped back towards him, pulling her hand from Milton’s in the process.
“Would you like a drink, my dear?” Alex asked.
“Yes, please,” she turned and smiled gratefully at him. Alex nodded to Graves, who was waiting to serve, then he directed Helen to one of the small sofas and taking her hand, they sat down.
“So,” Clarence said, leaning forward in his chair and giving her a friendly smile. “Tell us how you met my brother?”
“I was arguing with a wagon driver actually, and Alex offered his assistance,” Helen answered as Graves handed her and Alex a glass of wine.
They hadn’t discussed what to tell his family and while she wasn’t silly enough to tell them that this was a marriage of convenience, she knew that it was best to tell the truth, as far as possible. She wasn’t entirely sure why everyone had to believe that this marriage was genuine but for some reason, she also wanted them to believe it was real. To admit that she had married someone, essentially for money and protection, and that he had married her only so his sons had a mother, was humiliating.
“So you live up to the red hair then?” Clarence teased.
“She has spirit, if that’s what you mean.” Alex interjected.
“Are you Irish?” Alex’s mother asked with a slight sneer.
“I was born in England,” Helen answered with remarkable calm. “The red hair in our family comes from my father’s side, we are distant descendants of James V of Scotland.”
Pearl sniffed. “And who are your parents?”
“Both my parents are deceased but-”
“Mother, I don’t think interrogation is really the best way to help Helen settle into our family, do you?” Alex’s voice held a hard edge.
Pearl put her nose up and turned away.
“Well,” Milton said into the silence that was growing. “I’m certainly looking forward to dinner.”
Alex nodded to Graves, who left the room to check on dinner and when he returned a few minutes later, they all headed into the family dining room.
Helen remained mostly silent throughout dinner, watching her new family and trying to understand the dynamics at play.
Alex sat at the head of the table and presided over proceedings. Although he didn’t speak very much, he made a few attempts to introduce Helen into the conversation but when he could see that she was uncomfortable, he stopped. He was also very dour, and hadn’t smiled at anyone other than her since they came downstairs.
The matriarch, Pearl, behaved much as she had before dinner. She was generally disapproving and prone to show that by sniffing. The devil in Helen wanted to offer her a handkerchief or enquire if she had seen a physician for her cold.
Rose was a very pretty girl but she was also 24, an age when most ladies would be married. She seemed perfectly pleasant and demure, as a young lady should be, so Helen was at a loss for why she still lived at home. She did notice however, that a look from her mother could quell any action or reply that Rose might have liked to offer.
Clarence was the opposite of Alex and easily the friendliest of everyone at the table. He rarely took offence, smoothed things over when they became tense, changed the subject when things got uncomfortable and enjoyed cracking jokes when appropriate. Helen felt that she could come to like him very much.
As for Alex’s late wife’s family, the mother-in law, Anna, seemed very stiff and formal and Helen wondered if she ever relaxed and let her hair down.
Milton made a few ribald comments and seemed to be an incorrigible flirt but basically harmless, and she brushed off her earlier disquiet when he had kissed her hand. She simply wasn’t used to male attention, so it was probably a fault in her rather than him, she reasoned.
Helen couldn’t decide if Jane was shy or simply circumspect. As the meal progressed, she flashed Helen a few smiles at her brothers more risqué jokes, so perhaps she was just guarded.
It was with some shock that Helen realised that she didn’t even know Jane’s late sister’s name.
After dinner they should have separated, the ladies withdrawing to the drawing room while the men remained to drink and smoke cigars, so Helen was surprised that when Pearl suggested the ladies leave, Alex stood and excused himself.
“Helen and I have had a long journey, so I do hope that no one minds if we have an early night?”
Milton and Clarence grinned at him, while Pearl sniffed but didn’t comment.
“Of course not,” Anna said. “You must be very tired.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Rose then got up from the table and met Alex by the door. “Good night,” she said, then kissed him on the cheek and turned to Helen. “Welcome to the family, Helen. I do hope we have a chance to get to know one another soon.”
She looked so hesitant that Helen couldn’t help but like her. “And I. I’m sure we will find time because I will make time.”
Rose gave her large smile, the biggest that Helen had seen from her all evening, although it faded when Pearl sniffed loudly.
“Good night,” she said with some regret as she turned to rejoin her mother at the table.
“That was very kind of you,” Alex said as they headed up the stairs.
“To make time for my sister.”
“It’s hardly kindness; I’d like to get to know her, and the rest of your family.”
“You didn’t seem to enjoy yourself this evening.”
“It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, I just prefer to observe a situation before jumping in.”
They had reached her door so she went inside and left it open for him to follow. He did, closing it after them. She took a seat by the fire and he joined her.
“So what were your impressions of my family?” he asked.
“Oh no, I wouldn’t like to pass judgement after only one evening.”
Alex smiled and nodded. “Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to the boys. Rose loves them too but Mother stops her from being too involved with them.”
“Their relationship is… complicated. Mother keeps her on quite a tight leash.”
“Can’t you do anything about that? This is your household.”
“But she’s not my daughter.”
“Is that why she never married, because of your mother?”
“That’s… complicated, and not my story to tell.”
Helen accepted that.
“Do you ride?” he asked.
“I used to love it,” Helen answered with a fond smile. “Sir Geoffrey bought me my own pony when I was 12 but I had to leave her behind.”
“I’m sure you’ll soon get the hang of it again. Perhaps tomorrow after lunch, we could take some horses out and I could show you around the estate.”
“That sounds lovely.”
“Until tomorrow then.” He got to his feet and Helen realised that she was a tiny bit sorry that he was leaving.
“Good night, Alex.”

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