Authors: Isabelle Goddard
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
COPYRIGHT © 2014 by Isabelle Goddard
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press, Inc. except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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First English Tea Rose Edition, 2014
Print ISBN 978-1-62830-035-2
Digital ISBN 978-1-62830-036-9
Published in the United States of America
Praise for Isabelle Goddard
“An enchanting, compelling and highly romantic read…Isabelle Goddard has written an outstanding debut novel that sparkles with first rate characterization, vivid period detail, heart-pounding adventure and tender romance.”
~Pink Heart Review
“Isabelle Goddard’s writing is sharp and crisp, her period detail evocative and authentic, her pacing zesty and her characters nuanced and believable.”
To Uppark in West Sussex,
a fabulous house with a fabulous history.
“Hurry up, or the milk will have curdled!”
A titter of laughter rippled through the company. Gabriel Claremont, Duke of Allingham, Earl of Rycroft, Baron Everard, had arrived and his tall figure draped itself negligently against the warm stone of the building. His hands were thrust deep into his pockets as he surveyed the motley band of companions who had walked with him to the dairy. A pair of intensely blue eyes tempered an otherwise saturnine expression.
Elinor felt a poke in her ribs, then Martha handed her a tray laden with glasses of frothing milk. Scrambling up the steps of the creamery, she almost cannoned into the duke.
“Less haste, girl, or there will be no milk left to drink!”
There was another titter. Half a dozen men and women had arranged themselves at intervals around the little ironwork tables scattered along the terrace. This was the latest
fad, Martha had told her, to drink milk straight from the cow.
“Your Grace.” Elinor curtsied briefly and handed him a glass.
For a moment he towered over her, one of the few men she had encountered sufficiently tall to do so. Dressed in riding-breeches and top boots with a Belcher handkerchief loosely knotted about his neck, he was unlikely to pose a challenge to Brummell, she thought, but though he was perfunctorily dressed, his broad chest and slim waist exuded an uncomfortable male strength.
She snatched a quick glance at his face and a lead weight nudged a path to her heart. It couldn’t be him. He was too young. Far too young to have known her mother. He seemed strangely familiar, though, and she looked again. Yes…she was certain he was the man who last evening had sent her headlong into a ditch. His air of casual disdain spoke an imperviousness to dairymaids and travelers alike. She’d been forced to gather her skirts and leap for her life, catching a flash of an upright figure, dark hair flying, before the racing curricle with its gilded crest was gone in a haze of dust.
“So what happened to Letty?” A man a few paces away sneered, his face weary with dissipation.
She met his look. His thin lips appeared to have been reddened, and was that rouge he wore on his cheeks? “I don’t know, sir,” she forced herself to say.
“Don’t try to gammon me, girl! Servants know everything.”
He was a truly horrible man and she would have liked to throw the milk in his face. How on earth had she come to be in this situation? When she’d made her dawn escape from Bath, she knew that she was burning her boats. But this!
“Don’t you talk?” It was another of His Grace’s friends, a wispy young man wearing the tightest coat Elinor had ever seen. “Pretty high and mighty for a dairymaid, eh, Gabe?”
The duke had said nothing, seeming not hear his companions, but she had felt him studying her intently. Now he turned to her.
“What is your name?”
“Nell Milford, Your Grace.”
“Nell. Short for Helen or Elinor or perhaps Margaret?”
She had hoped no one would ask that question since she’d deliberately chosen Nell as a far more likely servant’s name. When yesterday she’d rounded that final bend in the road and seen the formidable gates of Allingham guarded by soldiers, she had been suffused with panic. This couldn’t be Allingham Hall—she must have taken the wrong road out of Steyning. She’d walked through a quiet and green landscape, the hedgerows filled with the sweet scent of late May, but now with dusk falling she found herself stranded—outside a strange mansion in a strange locality, a lone woman, shabby and unkempt from two days’ traveling. She would be laughed out of sight if she were to ask for charity and a bed for the night. The older guard’s question had been a lifebelt saving her from drowning. Was she the new dairymaid? Just pretend, she’d told herself, just pretend. “Yes,” she’d said, and her voice had rung steady. “I’m the new dairymaid, Elinor…Nell Milford.”
“Elinor,” the duke was musing now, “an elegant name.”
“Elegant figure too,” guffawed a high-complexioned man sitting nearby.
“I prefer Letty’s, don’t you know.” It was the tight coat. “A body you could get hold of.”
“And did, Hayward, as I recall—frequently.”
This from the florid man. “Too frequently by all accounts—it’s no wonder she had to leave.”
“Don’t be sad, Nell,” the man addressed as Hayward coaxed. “You may not be such a plump pigeon but I’m sure you have other attributes. She’s mighty pretty, ain’t she, Gabe?”
The duke ignored him and continued to lounge against the creamery wall, an expression of distaste on his face. His gaze wandered from her to the glass of milk he held and back again, and she watched his hesitation with inner amusement.
He put the glass down after only one sip and roused himself to say, “Take no notice of my friends, Nell. They have yet to learn their manners.”
“I don’t, Your Grace.” She thought of the locket secreted in her dress and her resolve stiffened. “Courtesy does not come naturally to all.”
“Listen to that—and from a servant.” The rouged man had risen from his chair as though he would come towards her. She had to quell an overpowering urge to flee.
“Off with her head, eh, Weatherby!” someone quipped.
The duke seemed to have disappeared into his own thoughts once more, oblivious of his companions’ pleasantries. They deserved each other, she decided. He might be good looking in a careless fashion, and no doubt he was extremely wealthy, but he was as haughty and ill-mannered as they. Her leap into the ditch yesterday had been a foretaste of what was to come. She should have kept walking past those gates.
Or should she? She had nowhere else she could go, that was the stark truth. She had not made a mistake—there was no other Allingham Hall in the district and this grand house was indeed the one she sought. At least now she had employment, a roof over her head, and food in her stomach. But the notion that there could be any possible connection between her, this immense property, and the heedless pleasure seeker standing so close, was nonsensical. As she had always suspected, Grainne had been delirious, her words provoked by fever.
“Good morning, Gabriel.”
A new voice had entered the fray. A neatly attired gentleman, no older than the duke himself and with a passing resemblance to him, was strolling towards the creamery from the opposite direction. His demeanor was one of a modest man and he had a pleasant but unremarkable face. The duke did not seem particularly pleased to see the new arrival and made no attempt to greet him beyond a brief nod in his direction.
The man ignored the rest of the group and instead turned to Elinor. “I am the duke’s cousin, Roland Frant. I live close by at the Dower House. You must be the new dairymaid.”
She nodded her agreement.
“And this is your first morning?”
“It is, sir.”
He looked closely at her face. “I hope that you will happy here.”
“I’m sure I will, Mr. Frant.” Her voice did not hold conviction.
“Might I ask for a glass of milk, too?” He gestured to the table where half-empty tumblers were scattered in disarray.
“I will fetch it, sir.”
Escape at last. She wondered if Roland Frant had seen her agitation and deliberately allowed her to disappear.
“Spoiling the fun, Frant?” the thin-faced man jeered. Roland merely smiled complacently.
“Show’s over, folks.” Hayward jumped to his feet, seeming keen to be gone now that the entertainment was at an end.
“Why do you have such a killjoy for a cousin, Gabe?” the thin-faced man asked again.
Gabriel Claremont did not answer. Instead he said, “I need to check on the stables. Emperor looked as though he was throwing a fever last night and I want him ready for the races on Friday.”
Gabriel could not be sure which warranted his greatest contempt, Roland’s ingratiating airs or the boorishness of his friends. The word “friends” was a misnomer; he had no friends, just people who gravitated towards his power and wealth and helped him fill the endless hours. When he’d first returned to England, he had welcomed any company. Jonathan was dead and he was distraught. He must take his brother’s rightful place, play the imposter, or so it felt. No wonder he had surrounded himself with a wall of mindless chatter and pointless action. It insulated him from reality since he could not bear to face the world undisguised. Life became one long dream through which he blundered, never quite hearing the voices, never quite feeling the handshakes, never quite present. Day after day, month after month, a blur of time filled with indeterminate noise to keep the void at bay. The ramshackle crowd he entertained had been that noise but they were not his friends. They never would be. Jonathan had been his only friend and he was dead.
Something about the girl had reminded him of his brother, not that he needed any reminder, for the memory never left him. He wasn’t certain what it was about her. Not her coloring for sure; that pale skin and those green eyes were striking in the extreme. Maybe it was the shape of her face or her tall, slender figure or just her expression—resolute and undaunted. It was an absurd connection to make but he’d been so caught up in the fantasy that he’d hardly registered what his companions were about. He should have realized what was happening and stepped in to protect her. Instead it had been left to Roland to stop the spiteful bantering. Roland, the tell-tale of their childhood, the sly manipulator of their adult years.
The truth was that he lived too much in the past. But this morning, as he’d watched her and noticed her every movement, past and present had fused together. She was certainly an unusual dairymaid. Her face was too refined and her voice too cultivated; but cultivated or not, she must be Letty’s replacement. She was as slim as Letty had been an armful. Slim and fashioned grey. Only the white close-buttoned bodice relieved the Quaker hues and that had been starched into subjection. She had waited while he drank the wretched milk, eyes downcast and hands clasped demurely in front of her. He’d been silently cursing this latest craze of
society and grimacing in distaste when the girl’s hands had most definitely twitched. Curiously he’d allowed his glance to travel upwards. She was looking directly at him, her eyes the shade of misty lake water, but seemingly lit by an inner delight. She had been laughing at him! Her wide mouth, far too wide, had trembled slightly as though in danger of breaking into irrepressible laughter at any moment. And though he’d stared back haughtily enough, he’d been fascinated. Seeing his look she had lowered her eyes once more and stilled the vagrant hands. An unusual dairymaid, indeed! For the first time in years, he felt curiosity stir.
The midday meal was a snatched event and Elinor had barely finished her last mouthful when there was a general commotion in the room and the sound of a hundred chairs being scraped back and a hundred pairs of feet shuffling on flagstones. Alongside her fellows, she rose from her seat before she realized the cause of the flurry. The duke was here in the servants’ hall! A suppressed excitement thrummed around the vast space—a visit from the master of Allingham was something quite out of the ordinary.