About the book
“She loved him when he was nothing and she made him whole...”
Susan Evans knows better than anyone how hard life can be. Tormented her entire life because of her heterochromic eyes, she finally decides to run away. Until she comes across the enchanting Marquess' Manor and she comes face to face with desire...
Alastair Hargreave is a man of many secrets; cold and distant. Having lost his wife and parents in a tragic accident years ago, his days are spent in despair and self-pity, convinced he will never find love again. But one day, he finds a peculiar woman on his doorstep, who sees him for who he really is. Will her love show him the truth?
As their passion and love grow, their self-hate quickly manages to take control. Convinced that they will never be loved by one another, they soon learn a deadly lesson when Susan goes missing and Alastair is left with a single decision: push your grief aside or lose the woman who loved you forever...
“My Lord Westbridge, do not you think that there was something uncommonly…discomfiting about that man?” Eleanor asked nervously of her father-in-law. “He seemed to be terribly distracted.”
“You worry too much, my dear Eleanor,” said her mother-in-law, taking her hand. “Remember, love, you are a mother now too. You must learn to put your fears aside.”
Eleanor smiled faintly. That was true. Little Grace was only a few months old, but already Eleanor saw the best of both her husband and herself in their baby daughter. Her husband was the future Marquess of Westbridge and currently served as an Earl. His name was Alastair Hargreave, and Eleanor had never known that such love was possible.
And now our love has resulted in Grace. What other name could we have given her, when she is so clearly a gift from God?
Eleanor had missed both Grace and Alastair terribly on her trip to see her parents-in-law. Though she had enjoyed her time at the Marquisate, she was eager to return to their sides. Alastair had written that Grace had started to crawl recently, and Eleanor felt terribly about missing it.
Outside of the carriage, a storm raged. It was still not late, perhaps around eight at night, but the sky was dark as the early hours of the morning.
The rainclouds sagged so heavily that the sky seemed like it might fall down, and the rain was like a sheet curtain. Just as they turned a corner onto one of the steep hillsides, thunder crashed so loudly that the carriage seemed to shake.
The Marquess yelped, then hastily gathered himself together. “I told you that I thought it unwise to travel in such weather, Elizabeth,” he told his wife crossly.
“Nonsense, Joseph,” the Marchioness replied. “Mr. Travers has been driving for our estate for years. He knows better than to be cowed by a silly storm, and so do I. Besides, Eleanor wants to return home to her daughter, do not you, my dear?”
Desperately, but I share my father-in-law’s unease more than I would like to admit.
“Well, My Lady, I worry a little about the state Mr. Travers appeared to be in when we were boarding. You do not think he had been…well, drinking, do you?” she asked.
“Drinking on the job? Travers? Nonsense,” Lady Westbridge replied.
Thunder crashed again outside. A few moments later, a bolt of lightning so fierce that it lit up the whole landscape showed Eleanor just how close the storm had become. Despite her mother-in-law’s confidence, she found herself sinking a little further back into her seat.
The carriage shook as they headed further up the cliffside and onto the narrow strait that they had to traverse to reach the quickest way home. Another bolt of lightning flashed, and this time Eleanor heard the horses scream.
Suddenly, the carriage rushed forward.
Eleanor clasped at her seat so hard that her knuckles turned white, while the Marquess and his wife clung to each other.
“What’s happening?” Eleanor demanded fearfully.
“Nothing—nothing out of the ordinary, my dear!” Lady Westbridge replied in a voice of false cheer that was somewhat betrayed by the fact that her face had gone several shades paler. “Just a bump!”
“Travers, what the blazes are you—” the Marquess demanded, sticking his head out of the window to yell at the driver.
The carriage sped and Eleanor felt herself shaking – or was that the seat itself?
“What’s happening?” she shrieked as the Marquess pulled his head back inside.
“Out!” he bellowed in a voice louder than Eleanor had ever heard him use.
He started to pull desperately at the door handle, trying to get it open as the careened toward whatever had made him so horrified. “Get the other door! Elizabeth, take Eleanor and get—”
The next thing that Eleanor knew, she was left with nothing but a strange sensation of flying.
In that brief second, it was as though her stomach had remained behind on the cliff while the rest of her had flown off the edge along with the carriage.
It was a surreal moment. Transcendent, almost.
And then it was over, and they were plummeting down.
Someone screamed, and Eleanor didn’t even know if it was herself. All three of them grabbed each other as the sharp rocks below approached.
The horses were screeching in freefall, the three of them were tossed upward to the carriage roof, and they only had seconds remaining before impact.
Eleanor’s last thought was a prayer.
God, help Alastair care for Grace.
Then she felt pain, burning hot pain like she’d never known.
And then nothing at all.
Alastair didn’t cry at the funeral. Perhaps it was because he couldn’t believe it was really happening. He still expected to hear his father’s jovial laugh, his mother’s over-confident speeches. He still thought he’d turn and see Eleanor walking toward him, offering to take the baby from his arms.
Instead of crying, he spent most of the time trying to hush the baby. Grace was too young to know anything that was going on, of course, but even the child seemed able to sense that the world had been changed forever.
“My Lord Marquess, we were so sorry to hear of your devastating loss. I hear the driver is still in the hospital,” a young man said, approaching him. He was writing something, and Alastair struggled for a moment to place him before he realized that this was Joe Pickering, the seventh son of some Earl and a reporter for the local rag.
“Indeed,” Alastair said shortly, trying to feel the baby from a bottle from which she did not want to drink.
They call me Marquess now. I suppose that is correct, but it’s far too early for that to be true…
“I just wondered, My Lord, if you thought there was any credence to the rumors?” Pickering asked through barely veiled eagerness. “That the commoner who worked for your parents was drunk?”
This man is a ghoul.
“I do not have time to comment on this right now,” Alastair replied. “The official investigation will be over soon. I am sure we’ll know soon enough.”
Grace started to cry louder. The truth was, the driver had been drunk. Alastair knew it – he’d heard it himself from some of the fellows in the tavern who had saw him leave. Eleanor and his parents were dead because of that common man valuing his beer over their lives.
If the man lived, he was liable to be hanged, or at least locked up for a very long time. If he died in hospital, no justice would be done for Alastair’s family at all.
“How does it feel to lose so much at once?” Pickering urged in a failed attempt at sympathy. “What do you feel?”
How did he feel? Alastair didn’t even know how to start. He looked up at the sky and down at his fussing daughter, then into the face of this man who wanted nothing more than to exploit his pain.
“What do I feel?” he repeated. “What I feel, Mr. Pickering, is cold.”
In truth, he wasn’t sure when – or if – he’d ever feel anything else again.
It had been four and a half years since Alastair had lost his parents and his beloved wife. Grace had grown from a squalling babe in arms into a fine young girl who had just celebrated her fifth birthday. She was a boon to his life, and one of the only sources of joy in an otherwise dark and bitter existence.
“Master Alastair, Miss Grace is ready to show you her song,” called his head housekeeper, Mrs. Caroline Jenkins.
Mrs. Jenkins should not have been referring to him as such, of course, but Alastair never complained. The housekeeper had been as much a mother to him as his dearly departed real mother had since birth. Sometimes he thought that she was all that stood between him and lapsing into total ruin.
“I am coming, Mrs. Jenkins,” he replied, straightening his cravat. Grace had insisted on performing today for her fifth birthday a song which she had apparently written herself. She had made Alastair promise to dress as though he was attending a fine opera. Alastair, always eager to indulge his daughter, had complied.
Not that I have actually attended the opera in a long time. Since my parents and Eleanor left me, some may claim I have become something of a recluse.
The common folk certainly believed so, Alastair knew. He’d heard his servants gossiping about what they all had to say about the Marquess in the taverns. They called him cold. Heartless. Uncaring.
And why should I care for them? Their lack of care is why most of my family are gone.
Scowling, he shook the thought out of his head. Today was about his little Grace, and he would focus on her and her alone. He walked through the door into the drawing room where she sat atop a stool five times too big for her, her shiny bronze ringlets tied in a neat bow.
“My goodness,” Alastair said. “That can’t be my Gracie. She’s only a little thing, but the person behind that pianoforte is practically an adult!”
Grace giggled, her little cheeks blushing red with pleasure.
Mrs. Jenkins walked over and fussed over the child’s hair a little, then turned to Alastair. “You look very handsome, young man. I have missed seeing you prepared for a night in Society.”
“You shall continue to miss it, I am afraid. The only show with a star who can hold my interest is about to happen right here. Shall we sit?” Alastair suggested.
He saw the flicker of disappointment in the housekeeper’s eyes, but she was smiling a moment later as they both took seats and Grace began to play.
The song – well, it sounded like a song written by a five-year-old girl. It was not terrible nor tuneless, but there was nothing to it that made much sense. Instead, it was like an abstract portrayal of all of the love and energy contained in the girl’s body, pouring out through awkwardly clunked notes and the occasional shout.
When it was done, Grace grinned widely. “Well?” she demanded anxiously. “Did you like it? Was I wonderful?”
Mrs. Jenkins began to applaud, and Alastair got to his feet, clapping his hands together repeatedly so hard that they almost hurt. “Brava, Gracie. You’ll be remembered amongst the great musicians with such talent as all of that.”
Grace beamed and slid off her stool to run and embrace her father. He held her tight, enjoying her warmth for a bit, then reluctantly knelt down to her level.
“Grace,” he said, looking into her eyes. Though the bronze of her hair was from her mother while Alastair’s was light blond, her large blue eyes were like duplicates of his own. “My little love, you know how much Daddy wants to spend time with you, do not you?”
Grace nodded solemnly. Some of her joy seemed to evaporate – she knew what was coming, and that broke Alastair’s heart a little. “Do you have to work?” she asked. “Will maybe perhaps the diamonds sell themselves today?”
Alastair hesitated. He’d been working that day, too – the day Eleanor left to visit his parents. It was the reason he’d avoided the trip and, when Grace took a fever, Eleanor had left the baby behind too. His work had saved his life that day, in a way. He’d just lost almost everything else.
He shook his head. “No, my darling. I need to go to my office. The common men who work the mines can’t be trusted without oversight; you know that. The second that they aren’t under scrutiny, they turn to the drink.”
Mrs. Jenkins tutted. “I’ll have you remember, Master Alastair, that my husband and I are both common folks too. Mr. Jenkins has been a loyal gardener at this estate since long before you were born, and I have spent the last two- and thirty-years taking care of you and now Miss Grace. We never so much as touch alcohol outside of special events, supervised or not.”
Alastair sighed. He truly had not meant to offend her, but how many different ways could he explain this? “You and your husband are different,” he said. «You are the exceptions to the rule, and I am very lucky to have you.”
“Hmph,” Mrs. Jenkins replied, folding her arms. «You are lucky. More than you know. And do not you worry, I know that this is the leftovers from the horrible incident. You aren’t really like this in your heart.”
Alastair opened his mouth, but Mrs. Jenkins hushed him.
“Now, Miss Grace,” Mrs. Jenkins said as Grace hurried over to her side when she beckoned. “Do you think that your father is a good man?”
“He’s the best man!” Grace replied enthusiastically. She paused, then added. “But sometimes, Daddy is sad. I do not know what to do to fix it, but I wish that I could.”
“I agree,” Mrs. Jenkins replied fondly. “And you and I, we are going to help him to remember how to be good and happy, aren’t we?”
“Yes!” Grace cheered.
“That’s quite enough of that,” Alastair said, a little more sharply than he’d perhaps intended. “Mrs. Jenkins, please take care of Grace. I shall be back for the evening meal.”
“It will be ready and waiting for you, Master Alastair,” Mrs. Jenkins promised.
“You know,” Alastair told her as he turned to leave, “Even your husband calls me ‘My Lord’.”
“That may be true,” Mrs. Jenkins replied. “But my husband never had to change your napkins when you first started to eat solid food. Come along now, Miss Gracie, my little Lady. Let’s go and have some fun.”
Grace giggled, then waved goodbye to her father and ran off after the housekeeper. Alastair couldn’t help but smile faintly to himself when they were gone. Yes, Mrs. Jenkins was borderline insubordinate at times, and Grace had more energy than he knew what to do with, but good God, he didn’t know where he would be without them.
Probably at the bottom of a ditch. Or the floor of a cliff.
Sighing, he went to find his bag. The office wouldn’t wait for him, and who knew what mischief the workers were getting up to without his supervision? The diamond industry wasn’t quite as glamorous as its end product, but it was good, solid work that Alastair enjoyed.
Today, he was meeting with a new partner in one of his mines, Elliot Balber. He didn’t know much about the man except that he was new money, which made Alastair somewhat wary of him. However, Balber had made enough a name of himself that it made no financial sense not to give him a chance.
Perhaps he will surprise me. Though it has been quite some time since someone did that.
Late that same night, a woman fled through the streets of the town as the skies opened and rain fell on her thin dress and exposed skin like ice. She could not see, and she cried out into the void for help as she stumbled along, but nobody heard – or, if they did, nobody responded.
The woman did not know, as thunder rumbled above her head, that nearby a little girl was hiding in her housekeeper’s skirts because thunderstorms terrified her. She did not know that the girl’s father was even more bitter and dark than usual, as this weather reminded him only of all he had lost.
All that the woman knew is that she had to keep going, or he would catch her. She had to keep going, or she would die.
“Help!” she screamed again. She stumbled and threw her hands out in front of her, feeling the smooth, wet cobblestone as the tiny rocks between the spaces attacked her hands. She felt blood on her palms mixing with the rainwater as she struggled back to her feet, and a new gust of air near her legs made her think that her skirt had ripped at the knee.
It doesn’t matter. I can’t stop. I can’t!
“Help!” she screamed again. “Please, someone—”
She was suddenly pushed roughly to the side and fell flat as the noise of a horse’s hooves followed by squealing wheels thundered past her, the sensation of the close miss making her skin crawl with distress. How close had the carriage been? Had it nearly hit her? Who had saved her?
“Please,” she whispered, and a rough pair of hands grabbed her under the arms and hoisted her to her feet.
“I reckon we saved your life, we did,” said a man in a low, common voice. “How are you going to make it up to us?”
“I do not have any money…” the woman said. “I need…please…”
“I can think of other ways a fine lass like you could keep us entertained,” the man jeered. The woman couldn’t see the hungry anticipation on his face, but she knew it was there anyway, like a deer who has sensed but not yet seen the hungry wolf approaching.
“Knock it off, Carl. Can’t you see she’s blind? How low can you get?” another man demanded derisively. “Where are you headed, love?”
“Somewhere. Anywhere. I need help. Please,” the woman begged. She felt hot tears pouring down her cheeks from below her cloth bandage. “The local noble, he must need servants. Anything, just—”
“Hm,” said the man who wasn’t Carl. “Well, dolly, there’s the Marquess nearby. He’s a cold-hearted bastard, though. I do not think…”
“Yes. The Marquess. Where? Tell me,” she begged.
The men paused for a moment, so long that the woman feared they had left her behind. Then a hand was in her own, leading her in what she hoped was the right direction. She hated putting herself at the mercy of these men – but what other choice remained to her?
Eventually, they stopped walking. She reached out a shaking hand and touched a stone wall. Was this the manor of the Marquess they were talking about? Why had not they taken her to the door?
“We can’t go any further,” Carl said, sounding a little abashed about his earlier behavior. “The Marquess doesn’t like our kind. We shouldn’t have brought her here, Roger.”
“She said she—” Roger protested.
Another thump – a door opening? – and then a woman’s voice. “Who’s there?” the woman demanded.
“Scarper, Rog,” Carl said quickly, and the two of them hurried away with only a quick ‘sorry’ from Roger in the girl’s ear.
She had no choice, and so she stumbled forward toward the source of the woman’s voice. “Help,” she whispered, her voice faint now. “Please, help me.”
The other woman let out an audible gasp. “Merciful Jesus,” she exclaimed. “Who are you?”
The wanderer felt her foot brush against the edge of a doorstep and almost cried in relief. Exhaustion pulsed through her and she felt her whole body slipping to the cool ground at what she presumed was the other woman’s feet. Her head spun and she felt her consciousness fading.
“Good god. Harry. Harry!” the woman screamed.
“My name,” the wanderer whispered, “Is Susan.”
And then she knew nothing at all.
“Absolutely not,” Alastair said firmly. “Send her to the workhouse. We are not a house for wayward criminals.”
“The workhouse, Master Alastair! You’d have us send a half-dead blind woman to the workhouse?” Mrs. Jenkins demanded. “How can you be so heartless?”
“My heart fell from a cliff along with my parents and my wife nearly five years ago, Mrs. Jenkins. Look at her – look at the cuts and bruises, the ragged dress, the way her hair is mussed. Smell the stale alcohol on her. She’s involved with criminal elements; you mark my words – and I will not have such influences around my daughter. Do you understand?” Alastair replied.
“I understand, but I am not sure that you do. Those places are exploitative and dank even for the able-bodied. How well will a half-dead girl who can’t see fare in one of them?” Mrs. Jenkins asked. Alastair had rarely seen the woman so passionate as she was now, standing tall with her hands in fists on her hips. “You would be condemning her to death.”
“I’d be condemning her to nothing!” Alastair told her, exasperated now. “Be reasonable! I have been more than generous in allowing her to stay here last night and for the rest of the time that it takes the worst of her injuries to heal. I will not harbor a criminal out of some misguided sense of duty on your part!”
Mrs. Jenkins pursed her lips. She was angry now, her Welsh accent – usually hidden after forty years living in England – coming to the forefront. “So, we send the poor thing to the tloty and she’s beaten for being unable to work, all because you do not want to face your true character anymore?”
“And what is my true character?”
“Kind. Loving. A man that Eleanor and your parents would have been proud of,” Mrs. Jenkins replied. “A man that Grace can be happy to have as a father. Not this coldhearted wretch—”
Alastair thumped his fist on the surface of the wooden sideboard nearby, causing the vase on top of it to teeter dangerously close to the edge. “You go too far! You have been good to me, but you are my housemaid and I am the Marquess. You must learn to respect my word on matters—”
“Respect your word!” Mrs. Jenkins replied, throwing up her hands. “You wish for respect? Very well, then. If I am to believe that this man is who you are, rather than the one I practically raised, then you shall have my resignation by morning. Mr. Jenkins, as well.”
Alastair went still. “What?”
“I mean it,” Mrs. Jenkins said, and Alastair could tell that she did. “The girl stays, or we leave.”
Alastair squinted at her. He was fairly certain that she wouldn’t stick to a resignation. She would hand it in tomorrow, then she would be back in three or four days. It was how she set an example for him when she felt like he was behaving badly.
But is she right? Have I changed so much that I would risk losing the nearest thing that I still have to a mother just because I do not want to help a desperate wretch?
Alastair ground his teeth. “She can stay until her recovery is complete,” he said eventually. And besides, when he allowed himself to actually think about it, he did feel sorry for the poor woman. “After that, we shall see. I will fetch a doctor to look at her later today.”
Mrs. Jenkins beamed. “I knew you were in there somewhere, Master Alastair. Why do not we go see her now?”
Susan woke with a start, disoriented. She was resting in a plush bed that she did not recognize from its feel, the pillow soft as a cloud beneath her head and a light, cool sheet resting above her body. Some of the aches and pains were gone, and when she ran her hand over her arm, she felt various bandages and coverings.
Her ruined dress was gone, too. The coarse fabric had been replaced with something soft, lacy, and delicate which felt like a thousand kisses against her skin and rustled softly when she moved. With a gasp, her hands flew to her face.
Her old cloth was gone. In its place was a soft fold of silk, securely protecting her eyes, clean and fresh. Whoever had treated her had replaced even that.
Susan knew that she should be thrilled. Despite that, her heart was hammering as fear and despair warred over which was going to take control now. The last thing Susan remembered, she had been begging for help. It seemed she had found it – but what waited for her next?
If they find out my secret, they may punish me for bringing it to them more harshly than the street life ever could.
She was still mulling this over when she heard the creak of a door opening and felt the light vibrations of small feet pacing toward her. “Who’s there?” she asked nervously.
“Are you scared? Do not be scared,” a little voice said. It was light and reminded Susan of birdsong – a little girl, perhaps somewhere around four to six years old, if she had to guess. “I heard you moving and I came to see if you were awake. And you are! Do you want me to fetch Mrs. Jenkins?”
“Mrs. Jenkins?” Susan asked. “Who is that?”
“Our housekeeper,” the little girl said. She moved closer, then Susan felt the edge of the bed pull down as the child climbed up beside her, no doubt to get a better look. “Mrs. Jenkins is really the one in charge of the house, but do not tell my Daddy that. He’ll get upset.”
“Your father owns this house?” Susan asked. She vaguely remembered the two men she had run into not long before losing consciousness. Where had they said that they were taking her? “Is he the Marquess?”
“Lord Westbridge, yes, that’s right,” the girl replied. “And my name is Grace Hargreave. I am the Lady, really, but I am only five so nobody calls me that yet! Besides, if my father ever marries again, we’ll have a new Lady. I hope he does. Maybe he’ll be less sad then.”
Susan paused for a moment to digest all of that. “I…see,” she said.
“Why do you have a cloth around your eyes? Can you not see?” Grace asked. “Can I touch it?”
“No!” Susan said quickly, waving her hand blindly in front of her own face to keep the child’s hand away. “No, please. Leave it where it is. What’s underneath is not for a child to witness.”
“Oh,” the little girl said. Embarrassment colored her tone. “I am sorry. Please do not tell Daddy.”
“I won’t,” Susan promised. “Do not worry. You aren’t in trouble. Tell me, Grace, do you know who brought me here?”
“Mr. Jenkins our gardener carried you upstairs,” Grace said. “He’s quite old but he’s strong. Then Mrs. Jenkins our housekeeper cleaned you up and had a maid help her find you some clothes. She cleaned your face all on her own, though.”
“I…see,” Susan said. She spoke calmly, though fear clawed at her insides. Had this Mrs. Jenkins seen? Did the Marquess know?
“Your hand is shaking,” said Grace, then, to Susan’s surprise, took it between her own. “Are you scared?”
“I…” Susan said. How did she answer that?
“Would you like to hear a story?” Grace asked. “My Daddy sometimes tells me stories when I am scared, like when there’s thunder.”
“I…yes. Please, tell me a story, Grace,” Susan said, resting her head back on the pillow. Perhaps, while the little girl talked, she’d be able to think of her next move.
And besides. It’s been far too long since I was able to sit and listen to a story.
Alastair followed behind as Mrs. Jenkins knocked on the door to the room where the girl – Susan, she called her – was resting. Truthfully, though he would never admit it, he was glad that he had allowed the housekeeper to bully him as she had. He didn’t think that he would have been able to live with himself if he had tossed a hapless woman out onto the street.
“And then,” a voice said excitedly as Mrs. Jenkins opened the door, “The girl realized that her mama had been watching over her the whole time! When she had to go away, she’d been so determined to keep an eye on the girl that she turned into a star. Now, every night, the little girl saw her there.”
Alastair froze in the doorway, stunned by what he saw. There was Grace, sitting on the bed and telling a story – their story – to this strange woman, looking as happy as Alastair had ever seen his daughter. And the woman herself…
She was dressed in a white nightshift, demure but clinging to her slender body, and the cloth around her eyes matched it exactly. Her hair was mussed but flowed straight like a waterfall down her back with the kind of unconscious perfection that other women envied, and it was so dark that it was almost black. When she moved and the sun hit it, however, highlights of red shone through it.
Why the cloth? Was she injured? Can’t she see?
“Susan, dear, it’s good to see you awake,” Mrs. Jenkins said loudly to announce their presence. “We were quite worried with how you showed up like that.”
It was remarkable to watch the way that the woman went still, like an animal in the woods who has heard a sudden sound and freezes in place. The sight made Alastair frown. Had this girl been conditioned to react so fearfully? Who would have mistreated her so badly?
“This is Mrs. Jenkins, Susan,” Grace told her, talking to the stranger as though they were old friends. “She’s our nice housekeeper that I told you about. And the man in the door – you can’t see him, but he’s there – that’s my Daddy.”
Susan’s pale cheeks flooded with color and she drew the blanket a little further up her chest. “Your father is here too?” she asked.
“Lord Westbridge, yes,” Mrs. Jenkins said. “He wanted to meet you, since you are to be our house guest for a time. Do you mind if we come in and have a little chat?”
“House guest?” Alastair and Susan echoed at the same time, though in very different tones.
Mrs. Jenkins shot Alastair a look. “How about you head off and see if Cook needs help in the kitchen, Miss Grace?”
“I will!” Grace replied with her signature smile. “It was lovely to meet you, Miss Susan!”
Once she had hopped off the bed and left the adults alone in the room, Alastair turned back to Susan. “I suppose, then, you are hoping to stay here for the near future?”
“That’s very kind of you, My Lord,” Susan said, “And it’s true that I came here because I needed help, but I wouldn’t dream of imposing…”
“Won’t your parents be searching for you, Miss Susan?” Alastair asked. Her gentle voice was affecting him in ways he did not like to be affected. Remembering that he was human reminded him that he could hurt – and after losing his parents and Eleanor, he’d promised that he’d never allow himself to be hurt again.
My Grace is the only person for whom I continue this miserable existence, and I cannot afford more complications.
“No, My Lord,” the blind woman replied. Her lips turned up into a smile, and he could not help but notice how pretty they were, even cut and recently-bleeding as they were. Her teeth were good, too, surprisingly so for a common woman, and she spoke with enough refinement that she could have served in some of the finest houses as a maid. “I do not have parents.”
Alastair raised his eyebrows in surprise while Mrs. Jenkins looked positively ill.
“Whatever do you mean, child?” Mrs. Jenkins asked.
“I…” Susan said, “Well, they died, ma’am. Consumption, not so long ago. I…well, my brothers took everything and I was left alone.” She put her hand to her own arm, clutching at it as though to reassure herself that she was still there. “Please do not misunderstand me. I do not want anything for free. All I want is to be able to work and earn a living.”
Alastair looked at this woman – this girl who had nothing, who’d been left to wander alone. She’d lost both her parents, probably watched them die. He vividly remembered the day he’d had to tell Grace that Mama wasn’t coming home.
It’s only by the mercy of God that I was not on that carriage so that Grace is here and not on the streets. How can I turn this woman away?
“You will stay here,” Alastair said before he could second-guess himself. “you are a well-spoken young woman with a good work-ethic; I am sure that there is something we can find for you to do in this large house.”
He saw Mrs. Jenkins looking at him with both surprise and pleasure and deliberately looked away from her.
“Well,” the housekeeper said, “I am afraid in your health and with your eye condition, you are in no state to be one of my maids, nor will you be much help in the kitchens.”
“But my daughter, Grace – you met her earlier – is in need of a companion,” Alastair said in a sudden flash of inspiration.
Mrs. Jenkins nodded approvingly, so he continued, hoping desperately that he wasn’t about to say something which he would come to regret.
“She is in fact the lady of the house, even though she is very small, and with no mother to show her how to act, I am afraid I am doing poorly by her. If you accept the position, you will keep her company on a daily basis and aid her in her daily tasks.”
“Me?” Susan asked, her mouth a round o of surprise. “My Lord, you…that is so generous. Are you sure that I am capable of such…I mean, I would not dream of…”
And nor would I! What am I thinking? I thought you a criminal moments ago.
Strangely, though, in the course of this short conversation, that felt almost ludicrous. He found that he wanted to help her more than he feared it. Maybe it was how well Grace seemed to have taken to her immediately, or maybe it was her story, but something told Alistair that this was right. “Of course,” he said, “Someone will always be close by. I need to ensure that you are safe to be around Grace.”
“I…” Susan started again.
“His Lordship knows what he’s talking about, at least when it comes to his daughter, that’s for sure,” Mrs. Jenkins interrupted her cheerfully. “Now, we’d put you on a schedule. Sundays off, Master Alastair?”
He nodded, then remembered that the woman couldn’t see him. “Er, yes,” he said. “Sundays off while I take Grace to church, and every second Wednesday afternoon as well. You shall sometimes have to accompany us on trips and such. You will also usually have one full weekend a month to yourself to do as you please, though this may vary depending on our needs.”
“We’ll supply meals of course, though you’ll be expected to contribute to the servant’s potluck on a Sunday night,” Mrs. Jenkins continued. “We’ll pay you a stipend which will get you through, do not you worry. Master Alastair is very generous.”
“I…” Susan said. “This is a lot to consider. I must be honest with you both, I have not much experience in childcare.”
“Not to worry. Grace has a governess who attends her three times a week to help her with basic reading, writing, and arithmetic,” Alastair replied. “Your job will not be to tutor her, but to help her with her day-to-day life. Do you think that this is something which you are capable of doing?”
“Take some time to think about it if you need, dear one,” Mrs. Jenkins said sympathetically. “It must be rather a lot to take in. We can…”
“No!” Susan said, so quickly that Alastair was taken aback. “No. Goodness, where are my manners? Do forgive me. Your offer is more than generous, ma’am. My Lord. What a fool I would be to refuse it. If you are serious with it, I can start tomorrow.”
“Not tomorrow,” Mrs. Jenkins told her firmly before Alastair could say anything. “Tomorrow and for the next few days, you will rest. You were half-dead on our doorstep just last night. We must make sure you are healthy before we send you to Miss Grace.”
Alastair said, “Yes. I shall call for a doctor and have him check you over.”
Susan’s cheeks went a rosy pink under the blindfold. “You needn’t go to so much trouble.”
Alastair stood. “Susan, I do not know what you have heard about me,” he said. “I have a reputation of not being particularly…warm with the common folk of the marquisate. A well-earned one, I will admit. But if you are to work here with me, you shall be a member of my household, and you will be treated as such. A doctor will be along shortly. For now, let Mrs. Jenkins know if there’s anything you need.”
“I…I do not want to impose,” Susan said, her voice slurring a little. The poor woman was obviously still exhausted. “If it’s any trouble…”
He smiled faintly at her, then remembered she couldn’t see him once more. “Do not worry,” he said in a much gentler voice than he was used to using. “This is going to be an arrangement that works out very well for all of us.”
Mrs. Jenkins beamed at him, and Alastair felt a deep awkward clenching in his belly. With a murmured farewell, he left the room.
It wasn’t that unusual. All right, the circumstances of her arrival had been strange, but Alastair had hired more than enough servants for various reasons that this should be no huge matter.
And yet, as he walked away from the room where Susan rested and Mrs. Jenkins fussed over her, something deep within him told him that his life had just changed. Forever.
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
A Night to Surrender to the Rake is now live on Amazon!