About the book
He grabbed her in his arms and that's all she ever needed…
Traumatized by a past she dares not speak about, Letitia Caddy, daughter of the Baron of Mullins, has always been afraid of the outside world. Confronted with her father's decision to wed her to a man she has never met in her life, she decides to run away disguised as a commoner.
Widowed and a single father, Algernon Fletcher, Marquess of Radcliffe, is the epitome of propriety. When his daughter is rescued by a beautiful young maid, he can’t help but offer her a position in the household.
But even though their attraction is fierce, Letitia's secret identity is threatening to ruin it all…
An unexpected guest bears shocking tidings and Letitia comes face to face with the harsh reality: not only are they all but mere pawns in a devious game of power, but the puppetmaster is one hiding in plain sight...
The tale was a fine one. Pirates and mermaids and heroes with swords lashed to their belts.
Letitia Caddy smiled to herself as she pored over the book, picturing the sailing ship as it bucked across a turquoise sea. She had never truly seen the ocean—or sailing ships or pirates or heroes with swords in their belts for that matter—but she made her own image of them, brought to life by the words on the page. This was a world far more dashing and exciting and beautiful as the one in which she lived. The world that existed between the covers of her book, she was sure, was a place in which everyone lived happily ever after.
A rap at the door yanked her back to reality.
“Yes?” she called.
“I’m sorry, Miss Caddy.” Her lady’s maid, Jenny, poked her capped head around the doorway. “Your father wishes to see you in the parlor.”
Letitia sighed inwardly. She glanced back at her book.
Such is the problems with these stories. The real world always manages to find its way back.
But she gave Jenny a small smile. “Of course. I shall be right down.” She slid a bookmark between the pages and sat the book on her nightstand.
Letitia found her father, the Baron of Mullins, waiting for her in the parlor, pacing edgily in front of a crackling fire. Her mother perched beside him on the edge of an armchair, her narrow face so serene it was almost expressionless. Her mother seemed to have perfected the expressionless face, Letitia thought. But there was something about her father’s rapid pacing that set her on edge.
The Baron gave a wide smile that seemed a little forced. His cloud of gray hair seemed a little wilder than usual. “Letitia,” he said. “Wonderful.” He gestured to the armchair beside her mother. “Please, sit.”
Letitia sat, glancing quizzically at her mother for an explanation to her father’s behavior. The Baroness kept her eyes down, her long fingers folded in her lap.
“We have some news for you, my dear,” said her father. “News I hope you shall find to your liking.”
Letitia raised her eyebrows. “News?” In spite of her father’s toothy smile, she felt an odd twist in her stomach. A part of her longed to be back in her bedroom, ensconced in her world of happily ever afters. She felt rather sure she was not going to find his news to her liking.
“Yes, news,” said the Baron. His smile widened. “You are to be married, my dear.”
Letitia felt suddenly hot. Her heart began to speed. She had not been expecting marriage. Not yet, at least. She was barely eighteen.
“Married?” Letitia managed, shifting uncomfortably within the confines of the armchair. “Married to who?” Her voice came out thin and shaky.
“To Ezra Barrington. The Duke of Banfield,” her father announced, puffing his chest out like an angry owl. “A very fine match, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
The Duke of Banfield?
Letitia was quite sure she had never met such a gentleman in her life. Was her father truly to do this? Marry her to a stranger? She felt the back of her neck begin to prickle. It was suddenly hard to breathe. Her lungs strained against her corset, her fingers curling around the arms of the chair.
“Letitia?” Her mother suddenly emerged from her silence. “Is that not a fine match, dear?”
Letitia tried to swallow. Her mouth was dry. “A fine match,” she managed. “I… Yes, I…”
She had always known this day would come, she reminded herself. One day, she knew, her father would sit her down and tell her she was to become a wife.
Letitia had always preferred the world of her books to the harshness of reality. She had always shied away from social events. The thought of dressing up and parading across a ballroom in search of a husband made her head swim with horror. She had been grateful her father had never forced such a thing upon her.
The Baron had claimed responsibility for finding her a suitable husband. Letitia would never have to set foot inside a ballroom, he assured her. Would never be paraded or peered at, would never be forced to dance gavotte after gavotte in search of a gentleman to marry. Seeing his daughter married well, the Baron had told her, was his duty, and she was to have no hand in it.
At the time, Letitia had simply accepted it. Her father had been speaking of her marriage since she was fourteen. It had seemed a distant thing. A thing not to bother herself with. Besides, the promise of avoiding the ballroom was enough to make her agree to almost anything. But while Letitia had lived with her nose in her books, the years had passed by quickly. Her eighteenth birthday had come and gone. She supposed her father had seen the event as a signal to start the process of securing her a husband.
Letitia knew many ladies married at far younger than eighteen. Fathers were always eager to see their daughters make fine matches, secure the most eligible of young Dukes and Marquesses. Letitia knew the Baron was no different. He had always had high hopes for her to marry well. Nonetheless, a part of her had assumed— or at least hoped— she might have at least a few more years to herself.
The thought of marrying the Duke of Banfield made her stomach turn over in dread. She had always trusted her father to find a good match for her, but she had not imagined it would be to a gentleman she had never seen before in her life. What if she were to despise him? What if he were to despise her? What if he insisted she attend the balls? What if he forbade her from reading? What if—
“No,” Letitia blurted, the word spilling from her mouth before she had any thought of it.
A log in the grate broke apart noisily.
The Baron’s furry eyebrows shot up. “I beg your pardon?”
Letitia felt hot and shaky. She had never stood up to her father before. But it was too late to turn back now. “No,” she repeated, pushing on, despite the tremor in her voice. “I don’t wish to marry the Duke of Banfield.”
She watched her father’s cheeks turn a violent shade of crimson. “What do you mean you do not wish to marry the Duke?” His voice began to rise. “Do you have any idea of what this marriage will mean for our family?” He took a step closer, jabbing a thick finger at her. “You will be a Duchess, Letitia. A Duchess. Does that not mean a thing to you?”
No. Not a single thing.
“I don’t know the gentleman, Father,” she pushed. “He’s a stranger.” She looked at her mother, trying for a little support. The Baroness’s eyes were back in her lap, distancing herself from the conversation. Letitia very much wished she, too, could distance herself from this horrid conversation.
“You will get to know him once you’re married,” the Baron said firmly. “Ezra Barrington will make a very fine husband. He is very well respected among his peers. He has a fine manor in Chelsea.” The Baron tried for a congenial smile. “He is most handsome.”
Letitia gritted her teeth.
Perhaps my father ought to marry the Duke, she thought bitterly.
She turned away, unable to look at him. She felt used. Betrayed. She shook her head.
“Listen to me.” The Baron’s voice grew stern and unwavering. “I am your father and you will do as I say. I have done everything in my power to secure this fine marriage for you. And you have the nerve to tell me you do not wish to marry the gentleman?”
Letitia felt tears prick her eyes. She could not remember the last time she and her father had exchanged terse words. She had always been obedient, respectful. But this was different. This was not just about merely accepting the new gowns he had made for her without her input. This was about the rest of her life.
She stood, feeling a heaviness in her chest. “I’m sorry, Father,” she said. “I know you’re disappointed in me. But I simply cannot marry a gentleman I have never met. I will not do it.”
She raced from the room before her father could respond. Her heart was thudding against her ribs. She could feel the Baron’s eyes burning into the back of her. She hurried upstairs to her bedroom and threw the door closed. It slammed noisily, a sound Letitia felt inside her body.
She sat on her bed, blinking back her tears. She glanced at the book sitting on her nightstand. How she longed to dive back into her world of pirates and mermaids and colorful seas. Back into a world in which she was not expected to marry a gentleman she knew nothing of.
She shoved the book from the nightstand and it spilled open on the floor. She couldn’t bear to read it. Couldn’t bear to read about all those princesses who married the gentlemen of their dreams. Not when she was being tossed at the Duke of Banfield like some prettily-wrapped prize. Bitterness welled up inside her.
How could her father do this to her? She had not just been an obedient and respectful child, Letitia realized. She had been docile. Pliable. Had always gone along with her father’s wishes. No doubt such a thing made it easier for him to drop this news at her feet.
Letitia will accept it. Letitia always accepts it…
A knock at the door. “Letitia? My dear?” Her father’s voice had softened slightly. Still, he was the last person she wanted to see.
She sighed, climbing from her bed. However much she wished to do so, she knew she could not simply ask the Baron to leave. He was her father, after all.
She pulled open the door. It was a strange thing to see her father standing outside her bedroom. He rarely ventured up here to her bedchamber. He seemed out of place.
He looked at her squarely, his eyes dark with regret. “May I come in?” he asked gently.
Reluctantly, Letitia nodded. She perched on the window seat and glanced out into the garden. A childish thing, she knew, to avoid her father’s gaze. But there was too much anger in her. Too much disappointment. She was sure if she looked at him, she would either cry, or raise her voice. She couldn’t bear to do either.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him pacing. The floorboards creaked beneath his feet.
“I’m sorry this news has upset you,” he said. “I’ll admit, I had hoped it might bring you excitement. Happiness, even.”
Letitia lowered her gaze. She hated disappointing her father. How she wished the thought of marriage filled her with excitement. How she wished she might manage a scrap of enthusiasm at the thought of becoming a Duchess.
The Baron stopped pacing. He knotted his fingers together and cleared his throat. “I’m afraid I’ve not been entirely honest with you, my dear.” His voice was trapped in his throat.
Letitia looked up at him, frowning. “What do you mean?”
Her father sighed. He nodded at the window seat. “May I?”
Letitia nodded. She shuffled across the seat to let her father sit at her side. She could smell his familiar brandy and tobacco scent. A smell she had known her entire life. A smell that was purely and solely her father’s.
She felt his wide shoulder pressing against hers. “I’m afraid I…” He let out his breath and stared into his hands.
Letitia’s stomach knotted. Her father was always so strong. A quiet, unassuming gentleman, but a strong one. Seeing him uncertain like this was rattling. She pressed a gentle hand to his arm. “You what, Father? It’s all right. You can tell me.”
The Baron sighed heavily. “I’m so afraid you’ll never forgive me, my dear. I’ve let you down terribly.”
The knot in Letitia’s stomach tightened. “Tell me,” she coughed. “Whatever it is. Just tell me.”
Finally, the Baron turned to face her. His round cheeks were red. “I’m afraid I owe the Duke of Banfield a great deal of money. I’d made some business dealings with him that unfortunately fell through. I was left in a great deal of debt.” He drew in his breath, forcing himself to continue. “I spoke to the Duke about writing up terms of repayment. I promised him he would have his money, though I admitted it would take some time. But this wasn’t enough for the Duke. He wishes I repay him in another manner.” He looked into his hands. “He wishes your hand in marriage, Letitia. He says it is the only form of repayment he will accept.”
His words fell heavily into the silence. Letitia felt suddenly hot and sick.
“Oh,” she finally said. “I see.” What else was there to say?
Her father turned to look at her, his gray eyes large and mournful. “I’m so sorry, my dear girl. More than you could know.” His voice wavered. “I wanted so much better than this for you.” He sniffed. “Ever since you were a child, I’ve dreamt of finding the finest of husbands for you. I always saw it as my most important task as a father. To find someone to care for you and keep you when I’m gone. But I’ve failed you. I’ve failed you so spectacularly.”
Letitia tightened her grip around the Baron’s forearm. How she hated to see him like this, aching and full of guilt. It was not her father’s fault. She wished she could make him see it. This was all the fault of the money-hungry Duke of Banfield. The gentleman to whom she would soon be wed. “It’s all right, Father,” she found herself saying soothingly. “It’s all right.”
But it was not all right. It was not even close to all right. Things would never be all right again.
Colin Caddy, Baron of Mullins, trudged down the stairs from his daughter’s room. Letitia’s heartbroken words were echoing in his ears.
“It’s all right, Father.”
The Baron knew his little girl well enough to know when she was putting on a front. Knew her well enough to know when she was just trying to please her father.
Though he had hoped for the best when he had delivered the news of her betrothal, there was a part of him that had feared Letitia might react badly. His daughter was shy and apprehensive, not one to leap at new opportunities, new challenges. But he had hoped he might not have to go into details about the betrothal. Had hoped he might spare her the details about the kind of gentleman her husband-to-be really was. He had hoped Letitia might nod and smile and agree, just as she always did.
The Baron made his way back to the parlor where his wife, Elizabeth, was waiting in the armchair. She was still sitting with her hands folded in her lap, just as she had been when he’d gone after Letitia. Sometimes it seemed as though Elizabeth had taken up permanent residence in that cursed armchair.
“Well?” she said. “Did you make her see sense?”
The Baron pulled a brandy bottle from the liquor cabinet in the corner of the room and poured himself a glass. He emptied it in one mouthful and gasped as it slid hot down his throat.
“I hope so,” he said. He began to pace again. Much more of this and his footprints would be forever worn into the carpet in front of the hearth. Frustration began to bubble inside him. “A Duke, Elizabeth,” he said exasperatedly. “I could not have secured a better marriage for her. And this is the response I get? Anger and tears?” He gulped his brandy. “A Duke,” he said again, for good measure.
Elizabeth murmured something unintelligible.
The Baron’s hand tensed around his glass. Elizabeth’s passiveness irritated him at times. He had an obedient wife, an obedient daughter. Colin Caddy had always counted himself lucky to have both. But at times like this, a little input from Letitia’s mother would not have gone astray.
He slumped into an armchair and stared into the fire. “I told her about Ezra Barrington and the money,” he admitted. He did not expect a response, but he needed to speak the words. Needed to speak aloud all that had happened, in hope that doing so might straighten his thoughts.
Elizabeth nodded at him to continue.
“And she’s angry at Barrington and his underhand tactics. Understandably.” The Baron refilled his glass, though he had not yet emptied the first one. “But hopefully I’ve made her see just how important this marriage is for our family.” He let out an enormous sigh.
The Baron loved his daughter dearly. From the moment he had first held her, squalling, in his arms, everything he had done had been for her. He had hoped for a son too, of course, but he and the Baroness had been blessed with no other children. After a few years, they had simply stopped trying. These days, Elizabeth was more of a silent companion than a wife. The Baron had long since come to realize that Letitia would be his only child. Without an heir, securing a fine marriage for his daughter was of utmost importance.
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the marriage, the fact remained that Ezra Barrington was a Duke. He would make a fine husband for Letitia. The marriage would do fine things for the Mullins’ family status.
“I’m doing the right thing by her, am I not?” He looked imploringly at Elizabeth.
She gave him a pale smile. “Of course, my dear. You always do.”
Colin Caddy only hoped his daughter would come to see that too.
Letitia lay in bed, staring into the blackness. Outside the window, she heard the faint hoot of an owl. Trees rustled in the wind, their branches tapping against the glass. The manor had been quiet for hours.
Sleep felt far away.
So her father had given her to the Duke of Banfield in order to pay off his debts. What a cold, harsh thing.
A life lived between the covers of fairy stories had led Letitia to believe in happy endings, in justice, in marriages for love. There was a joy to living in a world of story. When a story became too confronting, one could simply close the cover. Real life, she was learning, was not quite so easy.
Letitia was beginning to see how naïve she had been. Though she had few friends, she knew most ladies of her standing did not marry for love. They married for titles, for status, for wealth and power. And yet somehow, Letitia had dared to believe her life might be different. Had dared to believe she might be one of the lucky few.
But no. She was not to marry for love, and nor was she to marry for power or status. Instead, she was to marry to pay off her father’s debts. What was she but living, breathing currency?
She loved her father dearly. He had always done well by her, had always put her needs first. She knew only the direst of situations could have led him to bend to the Duke’s wishes this way. She wanted to help her father. Wanted him out of debt. Of course she did. But to agree to this marriage? Could she really do such a thing?
What choice do I have?
The thought was bitter and brutal. Of course she had no choice. The deal had been struck. The Baron’s daughter in exchange for his debts. Her wishes had not been taken into account. She knew she had been a fool to expect anything different.
Letitia tried to imagine this gentleman. Ezra Barrington, the fabled Duke of Banfield. “Well-respected”, her father had said. “Most handsome.” And yet the gentleman her mind conjured up was a cold-hearted, sharp-eyed beast who thought of nothing but his own advancement.
Perhaps she was wrong. Perhaps he was a good and decent gentleman. She almost laughed. What good and decent gentleman would take a wife to settle his debts?
I can’t. I cannot marry him.
Letitia felt suddenly, strangely determined. She loved her father, yes, but she could not condemn herself to this life. Could not share a marriage bed with a gentleman who saw her as nothing more than repayment.
She would not do it. And she knew her only way out was to leave.
Letitia sat up in bed, her heart pounding.
Run away. Am I really to do such a thing?
Did she truly have it in her?
She climbed out of bed and went to the window. She pushed aside the curtain. The night was still thick and dark, though she knew the dawn could not be far away. In the splintered moonlight, she could see the dark plains of the manor grounds. The shadow of the tree glided over her window.
Letitia could barely remember the last time she had left the property. Outside those gates, she knew, was the heaving, dirty mess of London. A place she had had no desire to enter.
When Letitia was six, she and her parents had been riding in their coach along the edge of Hampstead Heath. Two men on horseback had emerged from the trees. They pulled pistols from their pockets and rode alongside the carriage, demanding the Baron and Baroness hand over their money and jewels. When their driver had refused to stop, one of the men had pulled the trigger.
For months, every time Letitia closed her eyes, she saw the crimson stain blooming at the shoulder of the coachman. Could see those men in black throwing open the door of the carriage and yanking the pearl necklace around her mother’s throat. Could feel her father’s arm hard around her shoulder, pulling her into him, trying to keep her from seeing all that was unfolding.
But she had seen. And she had heard. She had come to realize that the world was a dangerous place.
Letitia stared into the darkness, trying to see through the gates. Everything beyond the manor was unknown. Perhaps there were men on horseback waving pistols and shooting at coachmen. And yet what was waiting for her if she stayed?
The thought of escaping terrified her. Yet, the thought of marrying the Duke of Banfield was even more unbearable.
Yes. The decision had been made. Letitia felt her heart quicken with a dizzying mix of excitement and fear.
She had no thought of what she would do, or where she would go. Had no thought of how to even find the city once she left the manor. But it didn’t matter. None of it did. All that mattered was that she got out.
Full of fresh determination, she lit the candle on her nightstand and pulled on her robe. Cupping the flame carefully, she crept out of her bedroom and down the stairs. Down the hallway she went, arriving at the door to the servants’ quarters. She clicked open the door and walked downstairs on soundless feet. The dark passage lay ahead. She made her way past the kitchen, with its heady aroma of old oil and meat, then followed the smell of damp linen into what she assumed was the laundry. How strange, Letitia thought distantly, that she might have lived in this house for eighteen years, yet never set foot in this room.
She held up her candle, letting its flickering gaze fall across the washing board and tub in the corner of the room, over the line of clothes hanging up to dry.
She stepped closer to the clothes line. There were several aprons pegged to the line of twine, along with a small cloth cap. She pulled down one of the aprons and the cap, bundling them beneath her arm.
A good start. But she needed some skirts. Something that might make her look inconspicuous as she slipped from the manor. Something that might allow her to blend into the city around her.
She found nothing more of any use in the laundry. There was nothing for it. She would have to creep into the kitchen maids’ rooms. Steal a dress while they were sleeping.
In spite of herself, Letitia felt a small smile on the edge of her lips.
What am I doing? I’m not this person!
She felt like a character from one of her story books. Felt as though she had stepped into one of her adventure tales. And she did not entirely hate the feeling.
She went back out into the passage and peered at the row of closed doors. Some, she assumed, belonged to the kitchen hands and housemaids, others to her father’s footmen. She had no thought of which was which.
Holding her breath, she pushed open the first door. In the faint light of the candle, she could see two narrow beds, each pushed up against a wall. She could not make out the faces of the people inside them, but she could tell they were men. She closed the door hurriedly.
Tiptoeing down the hall, she reached the next door. Another two beds filled the room, with a washstand in one corner and a chair in another. On the chair lay a gray woolen dress. Letitia’s heart leapt. She lurched forward and snatched the skirts, then disappeared out of the room before the girls in the beds awoke.
Guilt gnawed at her insides.
I’ve not even left the manor yet, and already I’m a thief?
What choice did she have, she reasoned? She could hardly go gallivanting through the streets dressed in her own silky gowns. No self-respecting noblewoman was ever seen without the company of her lady’s maid. She’d be recognized as a runaway at once. Would be marched back to the manor before her parents had even noticed her gone.
With the skirts and apron tucked under her arm, she crept back into her room, heaving a sigh of relief at having not been followed. She peeked through the gap in the curtains again. A pale dawn was pushing at the bottom of the sky.
She wanted to leave now, before she changed her mind. And she did not want her first solo venture into the London streets to be in blackness.
Nor did she relish the thought of trying to escape the grounds in broad daylight. She knew she had to hurry. The kitchen staff would be waking soon, the housemaids coming to light the fires.
How long would it be until the girl in the bed discovered her skirts had been stolen?
I need to hurry.
Letitia pulled on her underskirts, then slid the coarse woolen dress over her head. With a fat row of buttons down her front, the dress was easy to manage on her own. She pulled her riding boots from her wardrobe—riding boots that only ever saw action when she was traipsing across the muddy manor grounds in winter—then pulled on the apron and cap.
Letitia drew in her breath and looked at herself in the full-length mirror that stood in one corner of the room. The dress was a bit too big for her slight frame, and she appeared dwarfed in the sea of gray wool. She tightened the apron around her waist, using it to hitch the skirts up above her boots. She had pinned her blonde hair in a messy knot at the back of her neck, and left thin strands poking out from beneath the edges of her cap. Letitia managed a faint smile at her reflection. She looked a perfect kitchen hand. Looked nothing like the kind of lady the Duke of Banfield would wish to marry.
She went to her wardrobe. There was a cloth pack inside somewhere, she knew. She had seen Jenny use it to carry her things down to the laundry. Letitia found it at the back of the shelf and stuffed in a few spare shifts and underskirts.
She looked around her bedroom. There were things here, of course, that had great sentimental value. The fine gold necklace her father had given her on her twelfth birthday. The embroidery samplers she and her mother had stitched together. And then there was her enormous library of books; a shelf that stretched from floor to ceiling, each volume read from cover to cover. The thought of leaving them brought an ache to Letitia’s chest.
Still, she could hardly take with her a whole library of books. Sucking in her breath, she took the gold necklace from her drawer and slipped it around her neck, tucking it carefully beneath her shift to hide it. She took the book from her nightstand and slid it into the pack.
That’s all. The rest of this life must be left behind. The rest of this life belongs to the Lady who is to become the Duchess of Banfield.
And that, Letitia thought firmly, was not going to be her.
She pulled on her cloak and most faded, threadbare shawl, then went to the window. In the early morning, the grounds were quiet. The property was edged with trees blazing in the autumn, thin threads of mist hanging over the grass.
There was no one around. She could make it out of the gate without being seen, Letitia felt certain. But how would she get out of the manor? If the maids saw her escaping while they bustled through the house lighting the fires, they would go straight to her father.
No, going through the house was out of the question. There was only one thing for it. She would have to go through the window.
Letitia almost laughed.
I truly am becoming a character from one of my story books.
She looked through the glass again. The window opened out onto a flat plane of rooftop. At the edge, Letitia knew, was a wooden lattice the gardener had installed for his climbing roses. Could it be climbed by escaping girls too, she wondered? Or just roses? She was about to find out.
She threw open the window before she changed her mind. A cold blast of air shot into the room. Letitia swung her pack onto her back and gathered her skirts in her fist, then climbed out onto the roof.
For a moment, she hesitated, the wind lashing her hair against her cheeks and stinging her ears.
What am I doing?
She glanced back over her shoulder at her bedroom. It would be easy to step back inside. She could run down to the servants’ quarters and slip the dress back over the chair before the kitchen maid had any thought it was missing.
No. Think of the Duke.
She gripped the edge of her bag and crept to the edge of the roof. There was the lattice, just as she remembered. The roses had withered and crumbled in the cold weather.
Letitia flung her pack off the roof. It landed with a dull thud on the grass below. Then she began to climb, slowly, carefully, one foot after the other. No thoughts. Just climb. It was all she could manage.
And her feet were on solid ground. Letitia found herself grinning. She snatched her bag and began to run, tearing across the frosty garden and slipping out through the manor gates.
Algernon Fletcher, Marquess of Radcliffe, sat back in his desk chair and rubbed his eyes. The numbers on the ledger didn’t make sense. Eighty pounds for this latest shipment? Could such a sum be correct?
Perhaps the mistake was his. He had been up since before dawn, trying to untangle the mess of the shipment’s paperwork. Perhaps his sleep-deprived mind was simply refusing to cooperate.
Starting work before dawn was not an unusual thing for Algernon. Despite his peerage, he spent long hours at his desk, committed to making his tobacco import business a success.
But this morning, things did not feel like a success. This distributor ought to be paying far more than eighty pounds for his share of the shipment.
Algernon looked up at a frantic knock on the door. “Come in.”
In shuffled Ellen Scott, his daughter’s governess. Her long fingers were knotted together, her face twisted into a deep frown.
Algernon leapt to his feet in alarm. “What is it, Miss Scott? You look concerned. Is Harriet—”
“She’s escaped again, My Lord.” Miss Scott hung her head. “I’m so dreadfully sorry. I just don’t understand how it happened. We’d just begun our lessons. I turned my back for a moment to refill the ink and she was gone.”
Algernon threw down his pen and marched out from behind the desk, a thorny mix of anger and worry bubbling beneath his skin.
“It’s all right, Miss Scott.” He forced himself to stay calm. He knew the governess was not to blame. “It wasn’t your fault. You know this is one of Harriet’s favorite pastimes.”
Algernon’s daughter had always loved to hide. Even as a young child, she’d often have the house in a panic, as they threw open cupboards and peered under beds in an attempt to find the little girl.
Now, at ten years old, Harriet’s hiding escapades had grown into far more intricate escape attempts. It was a game to her, Algernon knew, sneaking out from behind her governess’s back, just as lessons were about to begin.
Usually, Harriet would be found hiding somewhere on the grounds; lying among the rose bushes or halfway up a tree. But the last time she’d escaped Miss Scott’s watchful eyes, his daughter had made it out of the manor gates and all the way to the garden square, five blocks away from the house. Algernon’s stomach tightened at the thought. He hated the idea of his daughter roaming alone through the city.
“Have the grounds been searched?” he asked tensely.
“As we speak, My Lord. Mr. Henderson and the other footmen are looking for her.”
“Good.” Algernon ushered Miss Scott from his office and made his way downstairs. He sent up a silent prayer that Harriet was safely ensconced on the manor grounds, not strutting unaccompanied around London. If anything were to happen to his daughter, Algernon Fletcher feared it would be the end of him.
Letitia walked and walked. She had no thought of where she was going, but there was something calming about keeping moving. Wherever she was headed, it was taking her further and further away from marriage to the Duke of Banfield.
And taking me further and further away from everything I know…
Each step was taking her further from the Mullins manor into a world she knew so little of. Each step would make it harder to find her way home again. At the thought, a fresh wave of fear cascaded over her, making her skin hot and her thoughts swim. Letitia tightened her fist around the strap of her pack.
I ought to go back. How can I survive out here? I don’t even know where I am.
She shook the thought away hurriedly.
It didn’t matter where she was, she told herself. She was not going home. As far as she was concerned, she had no home. She swallowed hard to push aside the sudden, dizzying swell of fear. And then she kept walking.
The streets had changed, she noticed. Outside her father’s manor, the houses had all been large and whitewashed. Neat townhouses and sprawling manors, all with manicured gardens and polished windows. Here, the city was grayer, dirtier. The houses were far closer together and the streets much narrower. Men and women wove along the road, dodging each other, dodging carriages, weaving past vendors who stood on street corners, hollering at passers-by.
Letitia felt as though her every sense was heightened. The city was so unfamiliar. What a strange notion it was that this place might have existed outside her father’s gates for so long without her having any thought of it.
She walked until her feet began to ache. Her boots, so rarely worn, were stiff and rubbed against her toes and heels. How long had she been walking? An hour? Perhaps two? She couldn’t be sure. All she knew was that the way to the Mullins manor was now completely lost to her. Her old life was gone.
And then came a second realization.
No one is looking at me.
No one was paying her a single, fleeting moment of attention. In her stolen skirts and apron, she seemed to blend into the eternal gray of the city.
The thought was a buoying one. Letitia kept walking, despite her aching feet. It was the thought of being looked at, she realized, that had terrified her the most about attending the balls. She hated the thought of men peering over wine glasses, scrutinizing her on their quest for a wife. But now she felt pleasantly invisible; no chaperone at her side, no lady’s maid hovering at her shoulder. And with that realization, a little of her fear began to fade. Suddenly, the city did not seem quite so overwhelming.
She felt utterly directionless. And utterly free. Where she was to go from here, she had no thought, but just for now, it didn’t matter. Just for now, she would revel in the fact that she had escaped the Mullins manor. Revel in the fact that she had escaped a future as the Duke of Banfield’s wife.
She had a little money in her pocket. Surely it would be enough to buy her a bed for the night. She had no thought of where she might go to secure such a thing, but surely there were people she could ask. And, she thought, as the colorful chaos of a market appeared before her, the money in her pocket would also buy her a little food.
Letitia realized she was famished. She had not eaten since supper the previous night, an hour before her father had dropped the news of her betrothal at her feet.
She made her way into the market, her eyes darting as she took in the stands of colorful fruit and vegetables, the eggs, the meat, the spices. The smell of freshly-baked bread made her stomach growl. She followed the aroma towards the baker’s stand.
Laid out in front of her were loaves of every size and color, along with cakes dotted with raisins and biscuits sprinkled with sugar. Letitia’s mouth watered at the sight of them.
She reached into her pocket and clasped a hand around her coin pouch.
How much is one expected to pay for a bread roll?
Letitia had never bought anything in her entire life. She dug a hand into the coin pouch. She knew there was five pounds inside. Enough for a bread roll, surely.
“How much?” she asked the baker shyly, pointing to the roll.
“Ha’penny,” he said. “Three for a penny.”
Letitia smiled to herself. “Just one please.” She handed over the money and carried her roll back into the crowd of the market.
A small victory. She bit into the bread, the warmth of it exploding deliciously in her mouth. She wished she had bought three. But such a thing had felt excessive when she had no thought of how she would manage to get by in this strange new life. Surely it would be wise to save every penny.
At the edge of the courtyard, Letitia saw a young girl standing by the toy-maker’s stall. Though she looked no more than seven or eight, she appeared to be alone. The girl was well-dressed in a green woolen dress with silver buttons down her back. Letitia remembered dressing in a similar way back when she had been a child.
A nobleman’s daughter?
What would such a child be doing here alone?
Letitia paused, watching the girl curiously. Despite the cold, she wore no cloak. No bonnet or mittens. Her blonde hair danced around her cheeks in the wind. Had she simply become separated from her nurse? Letitia wondered. Surely if that was the case, she would not have been permitted to leave the house without adequate clothing.
And then, in the corner of her vision, she caught sight of two men. They were dressed in dark clothes, their eyes darting as they moved through the crowd. Slowly, silently, they approached the girl.
The look on the men’s faces, Letitia had seen that before. Seen it on the men who had held up her parents’ carriage. Seen it on the man who had fired the pistol into their coachman’s shoulder.
She heard herself cry out. “Help! Someone! She’s in trouble!”
At the sound of her shouts, the girl looked up. She caught sight of the men approaching her and let out a screech of her own. The two men shoved their way through the crowd and began to run, disappearing into the chaos of the market.
The girl stared after them as they disappeared, her blue eyes wide and her chin trembling. She burst into tears.
Letitia hurriedly knelt beside her. “It’s all right,” she said gently. “They’re gone now.”
“They were going to hurt me!” The girl threw herself impulsively at Letitia, wrapping her thin arms around her neck. Taken aback for a moment, Letitia held the girl as she cried, feeling her small body tremble with her tears.
Finally, the girl stepped back and wiped her eyes. She was slightly older than she had first thought, Letitia realized. Nine or ten, perhaps. Still, far too young to be charging around the market on her own.
“Are you here alone?” she asked gently.
The girl looked at her feet. After a moment, she nodded. “I ran away,” she admitted. “I was just playing a game. I just wanted an adventure. But I…” She faded out, her chin trembling as a second wave of tears threatened. “I didn’t know those men were going to be here.” She shivered violently as a cold wind tunneled through the market. Two oranges rolled from the grocer’s stand and trundled across the cobbles.
Letitia unwound the shawl from her neck and wrapped it around the girl’s shoulders. She smiled. “Running away can be frightening.”
The girl nodded.
Letitia took the girl’s hands and looked into her blue eyes. “What’s your name?”
“Harriet.” Her voice was small. “Harriet Fletcher.”
Letitia smiled. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Harriet. I’m—” She hesitated.
No, I’m not Letitia Caddy. Not any longer.
“I’m Molly,” she said, blurting out the first name that came to mind.
A small smile turned the corner of Harriet’s lips.
“Shall I see you home?” asked Letitia.
The girl nodded.
“Can you show me the way?”
Harriet nodded again. Letitia smiled wryly to herself. At least one of them knew their way around this city.
“I’m sorry, My Lord,” said Algernon’s footman, Henderson. “The men and I have searched the entire grounds. There’s no sign of Miss Fletcher here.”
Algernon nodded, pinching the bridge of his nose to stave off the headache he could feel approaching. “She must have slipped out the gates again.” He looked back at Henderson. “Tell the groom to prepare the coach. I need to go and search for her.”
The words left a knot of worry inside him. He had no thought of where to even being looking. He shivered, turning up the collar of his coat against the wind. How had Harriet been dressed? Was she even wearing a coat? Bonnet? Mittens? He knew it was unlikely if she had slipped out of the sitting room from beneath Miss Scott’s nose.
The knot in his stomach tightened.
Henderson nodded. “Of course, My Lord. We’ll have the coach ready at once.” He hurried off towards the stables.
Algernon began to pace across the terrace, rubbing his hands together with a mixture of anxiety and cold. And then, in the corner of his vision, he saw movement by the manor gates.
Harriet, hand in hand with a young woman.
Algernon let out his breath and raced down the path. He scooped his daughter into his arms, lifting her from the ground and squeezing her tightly.
“Where have you been?” he gushed. “You terrified me!”
His daughter burst into tears. “I’m sorry, Papa.” Her arms tightened around his neck, her long legs curling around his waist.
Algernon closed his eyes against her hair, inhaling the soapy scent of her. Half of him longed to give his daughter the scolding of a lifetime. The other half never wanted to let her go.
He set her down. A pale blue shawl was knotted around her neck. Not hers, Algernon thought distantly. “We will talk about this later,” he said, with as much sharpness as he could muster. He pressed a hand to the top of his daughter’s head. “You must make your apologies to Miss Scott, Harriet. She was very worried for you. We all were.”
Harriet hung her head. “Yes, Papa.” She trotted inside obediently.
Algernon looked up. The young woman who had brought Harriet home was hovering shyly several feet away. Her hands were clasped in front of her, her eyes on her feet. A strand of golden hair peeked out from beneath her cloth cap and tickled her cheek.
Algernon took a step towards her. She looked up at his movement, their eyes meeting. Algernon felt something shift inside him. A faint fluttering sensation in his chest. It was a strange feeling only distantly remembered.
He realized he was staring. This young woman, with her threadbare gray skirts and discolored cap, was dazzlingly beautiful.
“I…” Algernon found himself strangely tongue-tied. “Thank you,” he managed. “Thank you so much.”
The young woman gave him a small smile. “Of course, My Lord.” She gave a short nod of her head and turned to look back at the gate.
“What’s your name?” Algernon said hurriedly, before she could slip out of the manor grounds.
She paused, and he regretted asking.
Is such a thing too forward? I can’t be sure…
The sight of her was making him strangely incapable of coherent thought.
“Molly,” she said after a moment. “Molly Cooper.”
Algernon smiled. “I’m indebted to you, Miss Cooper.” He brought her pale hand to his lips and pressed a gentle kiss to it.
Her lips parted slightly, her blue eyes shining.
“I ought to leave you, My Lord,” she said after a moment. “Let you get back to your daughter.”
“No,” Algernon blurted. “Don’t leave.”
Miss Cooper looked back at him with surprise in her eyes.
Algernon swallowed hard.
“Don’t leave?” What in God’s name am I doing?
He only knew he did not want to let this beautiful young woman disappear. No, it was more than that. He could not let her disappear.
“Where did you find her?” he asked. “Harriet?”
“At the market, My Lord.”
Algernon let out his breath. “Which market?”
Miss Cooper hesitated. “I…”
“She’s something of an escape artist, I’m afraid,” Algernon sighed. “Last time, she found her way to the garden square.” Yes, he thought, there would be a scolding and a half for Harriet tonight.
Although, can I truly be angry when she had brought this lovely creature to my door?
“You work close to the market then?” Algernon asked, painfully aware of how stilted and foolish his words sounded.
Miss Cooper laced her narrow fingers together. “Actually, I’m… between positions.”
“Between positions? And what kind of work do you do?”
“Forgive me,” Algernon said hurriedly. “Here am I asking you all these questions, and you’ve no thought of who I am.” He gave a slight bow of the head. “Algernon Fletcher, Marquess of Radcliffe.” He gave her a crooked smile. “Long-suffering father of Harriet.”
Miss Cooper smiled. “I’m a kitchen hand, My Lord,” she said finally. “Or I can work about the house. Whatever needs doing, you might say.” She flashed him a short white smile. There was that fluttering again, dancing around inside him, waking a part of him that had been dormant for years. The feeling was subtle, but undeniable.
Algernon found himself returning her smile. “I’m in need of a kitchen hand,” he heard himself say. “Perhaps you might oblige me?”
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