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The Duke's Heir is now available on Amazon - this story is a favourite of mine and I hope this taster is sufficient to tempt you to buy it.
‘Mama, shall I arrange to have the roof mended or not?’ Emily waited, fists clenched, for her mother to reply.
‘What was that, my love?’
‘The roof, Mama, shall I get it repaired?’ Her mother frowned and closed her eyes again.
‘Whatever you please, my love. You know best.’
She watched her mother sink back into a deep sleep and her eyes filled. It had been so different two years ago, before her father had been killed in a carriage accident. Then Glebe House had been a happy place; her mother lively and beautiful.
Now she lay on the chaise longue all day, taking no interest in anything, making no decisions, leaving everything to her. Her mother was only two and forty but looked years older. Her lovely brown hair was fading and her skin held an unhealthy pallor. Emily realised she was watching her mother slowly fade away, but there was nothing she could do about it.
Her father had died, taking his annuity with him. The small estate produced barely enough revenue to keep herself, her mother, and her two younger sisters, Amelia aged thirteen and Serena aged nine, from penury. She sighed and crossed the room to pull up the patchwork comforter, sad to see that her mother’s skeletal frame barely made a dent in the cover. She returned to the study to continue her search for a way to keep her small family afloat. Her youngest sister poked her head around the door.
‘Em, are you coming for a walk with us? Mary says we can go and look for blackberries in the woods.’ Serena already had her cloak and walking boots on ready for the promised outing.
‘No, Serena, I’m sorry, I have too much to attend to this morning. But I will be up this afternoon to see how well you have learnt yesterday’s lessons.’ Emily reached down and refastened Serena’s bonnet string. The early autumn weather was fine, but since her younger sister’s near fatal illness two winters before, she had remained susceptible to chills and fevers.
Serena grinned. ‘Millie has not finished her French so you had better not come up before teatime.’ There was a clatter of boots on the uncarpeted stairs behind them.
‘I have finished; do not tell tales, Serena. I did it just now.’
‘I am delighted to hear it, Millie.’ Emily kissed her sister and automatically rectified the girl’s appearance. ‘Must you always look so harum-scarum, my dear? If you travelled about the place a little more slowly I’m certain you would get less dishevelled.’
Amelia was at that stage when she appeared to be all legs and arms and flying hair. But even at thirteen her oval face with her huge violet eyes, framed by tumbling nut-brown curls, gave promise that she would be a great beauty in years to come.
Millie shook her head dislodging several more strands of hair from what was meant to be a tidy, waist-length braid. ‘I like to run, Em; I would never have time enough to do all the things I wish to do in a day if I walked everywhere, as you do.’
‘I’m a responsible adult of almost twenty years. I can hardly race about Glebe House. Mama would be scandalized.’ They all knew their beloved mother scarcely noticed their existence but she liked to pretend things were as they should be. She would do anything to make life easier for Serena, Millie and her mother.
Mary, the girls’ nurse, appeared, a trifle breathless, from the narrow servants’ passageway. ‘Goodness me, Miss Millie, you fair wear me out! I can scarce keep up with you.’
‘Then don’t try, Mary. We’re quite content to wait for you.’ Mary had nursed all three of them with love and devotion but was now in her middle years, finding her energetic sister a sore trial to her plump legs.
‘It’s unladylike to run downstairs, Miss Millie, and well you know it.’
Fearing another argument Serena intervened. She slipped her hand into Mary’s. ‘Mary, shall we go and fetch a basket from Cook? If we’re to pick blackberries we will need something to put them in, will we not?’
‘I’ll run and get one. Wait here for me.’ Millie was gone with a flurry of fading blue calico and crisp starched cotton, leaving them no choice.
Emily laughed. ‘It’s no good fretting, Mary. Millie will grow out of it; after all I did, did I not?’ She watched the three depart, chattering happily, down the weed filled drive and closed the heavy oak front door before returning to her duties. It seemed a lifetime since she'd had either the freedom, or the inclination, to dash about the place.
The past two years had been grey and oppressive. Angrily she slammed the study door behind her. Her maternal grandfather, the Duke of Westerham, was entirely to blame for their present miserable situation.
Her mother, Althea, had been born unexpectedly to the duchess when in her forties, and had been much petted and spoilt by both doting parents. Her older brother, Peregrine, had already left home and set up his own nursery by the time his parents presented him with an infant sister. He had viewed the whole proceedings with extreme distaste and had never exchanged more than a few words with his sibling.
When her mother had married, against the wishes of her parents, to her father, a country squire of impeccable birth but moderate income, the duke and duchess had been displeased. However, all might have been well if the duchess had not died soon afterwards before they could be reconciled. The duke had unfairly blamed his daughter for his wife’s death and had never forgiven her.
Whilst her father had been alive she knew her mother had been able to contain her grief at the duke’s harsh treatment, but now the misery of losing her husband had uncovered the old wound and the situation was proving too much for her. Mama was suffering from a nervous condition which became worse as each day passed. This decline had started immediately after she had become a widow.
Emily had written to her grandfather telling him of her father’s death, and her mother’s poor health, but had received no response. She knew there was no point applying to her Uncle Peregrine for he had died many years ago. She supposed that she must have cousins and second cousins but the connection was too distant to be of any use to her now.
Her spirits sank when she looked at the pile of papers on the desk. These were all demands for payment and she had scarcely enough funds to cover them. And now the roof had sprung a leak and there was nothing she could do about it. At this rate Glebe House would fall down around their ears before they had the wherewithal to repair it.
She sank back on one of the threadbare, sagging chairs and her shoulders slumped. What could she do? Was there no way out or did certain ruin face them? Where could she obtain the necessary money to solve their problems?
She sat up and clapped her hands to her mouth as an incredible notion occurred to her. Yes; this was the only way. She would find a wealthy man and marry him. She frowned as a potential problem occurred to her. She didn’t know any men, wealthy or otherwise. But she knew someone who did!
She scrambled up and hurried over to the desk. She pushed the pile of bills to one side and placed a clean sheet of paper in front of her. She would write, one last time, to her grandfather. He was, after all, her guardian and the head of her household, even if so far he had completely ignored his duties.
She carefully trimmed a quill and prepared to write the most difficult letter of her life. She was going to ask her grandfather to find her a suitable husband. Years ago he had arranged a match for his daughter, but she had refused his choice. Perhaps his granddaughter’s willingness to be married to a man that he selected would heal the breach between the families.
If her mother had been well Emily would not have contemplated such a drastic step, but in the present circumstances she doubted that her decision would be questioned.