Abby Goddard’s life is going along just swimmingly, apart from the disappearance of her life’s love—Wesley Cavendish, a man well above her station. Just before Christmas, Grandmama dies after revealing the identity of Abby’s grandfather. The Duke of Danby, no less. Now the entire family will travel to Yorkshire to confront Danby, hoping to gain a dowry for Abby. But then Wesley reemerges, sparking a hope Abby thought long destroyed.
Shall the prodigal son’s sole inheritance be an unsightly gash? Wesley Cavendish aspires to the political realm, despite his father’s near-murderous opposition…not to mention his opposition to Abby Goddard. But since Father died, will the new Earl of Fordingham rescind Father’s disgraceful allegations? Fordingham thwarts Wesley at every turn, threatening marriage to a prominent Tory family—which precludes Abby—to put an end to Wesley’s Whig involvement…unless Wesley can find a loophole.
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“There’s nothing you can do for Grandmama now. She’s gone.”
The pristine silver tray slipped from Abigail Goddard’s hands at her mother’s pronouncement. Lord Pritchard’s tea service clattered at her feet, much as her life had just done. The various implements crashed to the floors and rattled about through the cavernous corridors of Henley Green. The echoes went on for what felt like an eternity.
At least it had been empty. The tea service, not her life. Abby’s life was nothing if not full. It was precisely how she wanted it to be—or it had been until Grandmama died. Why could things not simply stay the way they were?
Mother jumped at the sudden noise, but within half an instant she resituated herself. After smoothing her hands over the grey worsted gown and habitually checking the belt of keys hanging from her waist, she bent and started sorting out the mess Abby had caused. All the while, Abby stood prone, shaking, and thoroughly unable to move from the numbness that crept through her body at a sickly, bedridden snail’s pace.
Cook poked her head around the corner. “Saints above, Mrs. Goddard! Let me help you with that.” A few grey tendrils poked free from Cook’s mobcap and trailed over her rounded face as she brushed her hands on her apron.
“Not at all,” Mother said with a staying hand. “Run along with you, Cook. Abby will be in to fetch Lord Pritchard’s tea and crumpets momentarily.” Her brown gaze followed the older woman until she was out of sight, and then Mother returned her attention to Abby. “Really, dear, you’re going to have to get through the day. She’d want you to see to your duties.”
Yes. Her duties. No matter what happened in Abby’s life, Grandmama would always wish for her to see to her duties. Sucking in a bracing breath, Abby nodded, dashed a stray tear aside, and fell to her knees to help Mother straighten the tea service.
“Your father will speak with Lord Pritchard tonight. I’m sure the baron will understand any…he’ll understand a small amount of time away we might need to see to Grandmama’s burial. He and Lady Pritchard have always been very good to us—all of us.” Mother’s voice broke a few times, but she didn’t fall apart.
Abby nodded curtly yet again. She didn’t trust her own voice. Not now. Not yet. She wasn’t like Mother—wasn’t able to maintain her composure in times such as these. With a tentative hand, she reached over and straightened the overturned sugar bowl.
Both she and Mother stretched to take the final spoon, and their hands met. Mother grasped Abby’s fingers and squeezed. “Get through today. Be strong.” With her other hand, she smoothed away another tear that was trailing down Abby’s cheek. “Tears can come later, sweetheart. There is work to be done now.”
Be strong. Like Grandmama had always been. Yes, Abby could do that. She had always been very much like Grandmama in so many ways. She’d just have to learn to be like her in another way now.
She stood and lifted the tea tray, gave her mother a weak smile, and started to back through the door into the kitchens so Cook could fill her tray.
“Abby?” Mother called out softly.
Abby stopped and questioned her mother with her eyes.
“You’re shaking,” Mother whispered.
Shaking. She needed to stop that immediately, lest she drop the tea service again. That wouldn’t do. Using every ounce of gumption she possessed, attained through three-and-twenty years of diligent practice, she willed her body and mind to settle into a calm, poised state.
When Abby bustled into the kitchens, Cook glanced up at her with shrewd eyes. “You all right, luv? I can send one of these other girls to take this in to Lord Pritchard and his guests.” With an inclination of her head, the older woman indicated a pair of scullery maids busy at the stoves. “His Lordship doesn’t need to know anything’s wrong with you. It’ll be between just the two of us.”
Abby set her tray down. “I’ll be fine, Cook.”
The older woman eyed her up and down with her lips pursed into a frown. “Mm hmm.” She loaded a plate of crumpets onto the tray and tossed a fresh-baked biscuit to Abby. “Eat that. You look faint. You won’t be catching a fit of the vapors on my watch, least-wise not right before Christmas.”
She took a few nibbles—just enough to make Cook happy. Once the kettle had been filled and the tray brimmed with goodies, Abby lifted it in her arms and returned to the walkway.
Cook trailed right behind her, and after the door to the kitchens clicked to a close, she furtively scanned up and down the corridor. “You can tell me what’s wrong, you know,” she said, her voice not rising above a whisper. “I won’t say a word to anyone.”
And it was true. She wouldn’t. Cook had always been as steadfast as Grandmama about those sorts of things.
Abby tried to smile to put the older woman at ease, but feared it came out more as a watery, shaking twist of her lips. “There’s nothing to tell.” She half-choked on the last word and swallowed hard to force the jagged lump down her throat.
Cook just nodded with a look of fierce resolve. “Of course there’s not, dear.” She reached a pudgy arm around Abby’s waist and patted. “But when I find out which one of those groomsmen dipped his thistle in your fanny and then left you in such a state—and I can promise you, I will—you can rest assured he’ll be answering to me. And as sure as sugar is sweet, I’ll let your brothers have a go at him when I finish, I will.”
Abby forced her jaw to close and her eyes to return to their natural state—firmly ensconced in her head instead of bulging out at the sockets. “I’ve not been dallying with any of the groomsmen, Cook. I swear to you—”
“I’d be swearing plenty, myself, were I left in such a situation. But that’s all right, luv. You don’t have to tell me.” Cook patted her on the shoulder, then dropped her voice. “I have my ways of finding these things out. I’ll handle it for you. At least that bit I can handle. You’ll have to face your mother and father with the truth of it, you will, but they love you something fierce. It will be all right. Lord knows there isn’t anyone who’s perfect, either, and your father knows that as well as anyone.”
Before Abby could deny, yet again, that anything had happened between her and a random groomsman from Lord Pritchard’s staff, Cook had bustled back through the doors to the kitchens and left her alone. Heavens! The woman thought she was with child. Not that Abby would be the first naïve maid in all of England to find herself in such a position, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.
There was nothing to be done for it at the moment, however. She’d have to sort things out with Cook later, so that the woman wouldn’t take after Jacob Lackey or Evan Arthurs or Bradford Tucker—Abby shuddered at the thought of that last one—with a rolling pin for something he hadn’t done.
No, right now, she must take her tray in to Henley Green’s blue parlor and be sure Lord Pritchard and his guests had everything they required.
Then she could worry about the groomsmen’s safety.
Scurrying through the estate, Abby forced her thoughts to remain on the task at hand. Shoulders straight. Head high. No shaking. Smile. Don’t drop the tea tray.
Finally, she turned the last corner and made her way to the parlor. Robert, her eldest brother, stood sentry just outside. He caught her eye and held her gaze for a moment—long enough to inform her that he knew, as well—and then he opened the French doors wide. He winked in the manner he always had to reassure her as she brushed past him, but she caught the slight glimmer of a tear straining at his eye.
Botheration, not now. The last thing she needed was to start crying again at precisely this moment.
Abby bit down on the inside of her cheek to force the tears aside and hurried into the room, listening for the click of the door behind her.
Without even glancing at the room’s occupants, she dipped into an awkward curtsey, directing her actions in the general direction of Lord and Lady Pritchard and their guests. Then she darted forward to set the tea tray down. After placing it on the occasional table before the Louis XIV chair upon which she knew the baroness would sit, Abby stared fixedly at the royal blue Aubusson rug beneath her feet.
“Thank you ever so much, Abby,” Lady Pritchard said as Abby set the spoons and teacups out just so. “Send Cook our regards for preparing this on such short notice, would you please?”
“Yes, my lady,” Abby murmured, dipping yet again into a curtsey. She focused on the gold work on the outer edges of the carpet. “Is there anything else you require right now, ma’am?” Even those few words left her voice trembling.
She needed to get out of there. Right now. Before she fell to pieces like a shattered vase, unable to be put back together again. Before she made an utter and complete cake of herself in front of the Pritchards’ guests. Before she failed in the one thing Grandmama stressed above all others—do your duty.
“Yes, actually.” Lady Pritchard passed a slip of parchment into her hands. “Would you deliver this to Mrs. Goddard for me? That will be all, Abby.”
Thank the good Lord above. Abby inclined her head, retreated a pace or two, and turned around, clearing her way for escape. Until—
“Oh, Abby?” Lady Pritchard placed a hand on Abby’s elbow and stopped her in her tracks. “One last thing, dear.”
The thwarting of her exodus left Abby trembling again. She took two full breaths and briefly pressed her eyes closed to fight down her sorrow before turning again. This time, her eyes passed over the baron, then traveled to Lady Pritchard, and finally settled on their guests.
Her breath caught.
Mr. Daniel Pritchard, the baron’s eldest son and heir, had come home from his recent travels—but he wasn’t the man who left Abby with a tingling sensation in the pit of her stomach, and a knot the size of Mount Olympus in her throat, and her toes curling within her half-boots from the desperate need to run as fast as she could and not look back.
No, such a reaction could only be due to one man’s presence.
Mr. Wesley Cavendish, the Earl of Fordingham’s wayward brother, stood before the hearth, looking like an ancient Roman warrior ready to race his chariot through the Coliseum—only a warrior oddly stuffed into modern fashions, with his dark, slightly curling hair falling down over his cravat. His straight nose and black-as-midnight eyes were just as she’d always remembered them. He regarded her so intensely she felt as though she’d sprouted six scaly heads and started singing opera from each of them whilst in the nude.
The baroness was still awaiting her reply, however, so Abby forced herself to formulate a response. “Yes, Lady Pritchard?” she somehow croaked, though her voice sounded more akin to a bullfrog than a proper young maid.
Try as she might, she was unable to look anywhere but at the marble statue of a man standing across from her—at the taut buff-colored buckskin stretching over his thighs, at the frosty, impenetrable expression in his eyes, at the perpetual flexing and releasing of the long, strong fingers at his sides. It was an action that had always left her trembling, though whether from fear or want, she didn’t know. Likely from want, if she were honest with herself. The clenching drew all her senses to those strong hands and reminded her of his gentle power, of the way he would take her into his arms and hold her as he kissed her senseless, leaving her feeling safe and loved and entirely too needy in a way only he had ever been able to elicit.
But that was many years ago, and she was a mere maid. She oughtn’t ever to have allowed herself to dream such fanciful dreams.
Lady Pritchard continued as though nothing was amiss, however, thoroughly oblivious to Abby’s discomfiture. “I should like for you to send word out to your brother in the mews. Let Thomas know that Mr. Cavendish will remain with us through supper, so there will be no rush to ready his mount before then.”
Mr. Cavendish never removed his devilish, black gaze from her person. His gaze traveled over her from top to toe without betraying the slightest sign of recognition, never revealing the tiniest bit of emotion. When, for what must have been the thousandth time, his stare met with hers and locked on, Abby shuddered.
Did he remember her? Did he care to?
Did she want him to?
Abby studied him. The three years since his departure from Blacknall Manor had been unkind to him—perhaps as unkind as the allegations hurled at his racing feet had been as he left. His visage had hardened, and a garish, purple scar ran from his left temple to his cheek. Did he have other such marks?
“Abby? Did you hear me, dear?”
Lady Pritchard’s voice startled Abby out of her ruminations, but not before her hand—the one holding the missive for her mother—reached out across the expanse of the parlor, as though to soothe Mr. Cavendish’s perceived hurts.
She snatched it back to her chest and took a shaky breath. “M—my apologies, my lady. Yes, of course. I’ll—I’ll be sure to send word to Thomas right away.”
In lieu of allowing the baroness to stop her again, Abby bobbed a quick curtsey, spun on her heel, and barreled through the French doors, nearly knocking Robert to the floor in her haste to escape.