Lord Lucas Cunningham looked out of his chamber window to where his daughter and her beau were walking and talking in the garden.
He had not made his way upstairs to spy on them, but he truly had gone to an upstairs window for a better look.
Lucas did not want to eavesdrop on their young love; he just wanted a few minutes to assure himself that Ruth was truly happy with Jeremy Moorcroft.
The young man was certainly handsome enough to turn any young woman’s head and wealthy enough to turn the heads of three-quarters of the fathers in the county. But neither of those things mattered to Lucas Cunningham. All he wanted for Ruth was all he had ever wanted for Charlotte; true happiness.
And the old Baron knew that Ruth truly did deserve it, given the confusing childhood she had suffered. But for all of it, she never seemed to blame him. She certainly had not abandoned him, even when she had been given a very easy way of doing it, one that would not require her to hurt his feelings outright.
Ruth had been offered the position of Companion to the Duchess of Sandford, her own sister, and it was one that she had taken in name only.
Although she did, indeed, spend a good deal of time over in the west of the county with the sister she had always adored, still, the clear majority of her time was spent with her father, a man she could not even now publicly declare as kin.
But none of that seemed to trouble Ruth. Perhaps it was her simple upbringing that not only kept thoughts of entitlement at bay but also any thoughts of taking back what was rightfully hers. Ruth was a very wise young woman, probably the wisest of them all in the Cunningham family, but she was also the most content.
As content as his daughter seemed, Lucas Cunningham thought that he was coming very close himself to the sort of peace that his youngest daughter seemed to always enjoy.
He thought it very likely the result of the new openness between them, the fact that she now knew as well as he did that he was her father. And yet he had come to realize that he had always had a certain closeness with her, a father-daughter closeness, even when all was still secret.
Lucas smiled when he saw Jeremy Moorcroft take his daughter’s hands and spin her around and around in the garden until her skirts flew around her ankles, and she squealed with delight. He knew he ought to turn away from the window and leave them to it, but there was something so very appealing about the young couple, so fresh and full of hope and excitement.
Lucas remembered a time when he himself had felt such a thing upon meeting the beautiful Leonora, the woman who would become his wife.
He was able to think of her more and more now that the truth was known, and there was nothing left to hide from the two people who mattered most to him in all the world.
Not only that, but he had finally owned up; he had taken responsibility for his actions all those years ago.
Something about taking that responsibility, at last, had opened the gates to his heart and let him think back on his earlier years with fondness and love instead of guilt and shame.
He knew that he had truly loved Leonora and loved her more than anybody in the world. Even after all these years, the day he had first met her remained the most wonderful of his life. With her shining red hair and bright blue eyes, she had caught his attention on the very first day and had never let it go, not even in death.
Lucas felt the old guilt begin to creep towards him, to try to worm its way into his heart, but he would not have it. He would feel it; he would acknowledge it, but he would not hold onto it forever. Lucas knew that he had faltered and faltered badly.
Violet had been the kindest of women and a very fine nurse to Charlotte. And he would never, ever forgive himself for that night, the night he had never been allowed to forget.
Turning away from the window with a smile, leaving the young lovebirds to it, Lucas decided to make his way back downstairs to the drawing room where his beloved Ruth would undoubtedly come hurtling after her young man had climbed into his carriage and driven away.
He knew that both of his daughters had had much to come to terms with in the year since everything had become known. But it was true to say that there was much that he had needed to come to terms with as well.
He had to find a way to reconcile his mistake, whilst the product of his mistake was a most beautiful daughter he could never bear to part with.
How did one separate the thing? His betrayal of his beloved Leonora was a terrible thing, something for which he could never truly forgive himself. But he could not imagine his life without Ruth, and he was certain that he would not have things any other way.
And so, there it was. Perhaps every part of a person’s life is simply a stepping stone to where they are now, mistakes and all. As painful as the old episode had been, as much as the guilt had tortured him every day since, Lucas knew that, given the chance by some miracle or other, he could never, ever take that fateful day back. To take it back, to refuse to make that mistake, would be to erase Ruth from the world.
It was also complicated, and, in the end, Lucas knew that it could only be accepted for what it was, and that was all. He could not change it, and he could not spend the rest of his life thinking about it. It simply was, and that was all there was to it.
As Ruth waved Jeremy off, that handsome young man leaned so far out of the window of his carriage she feared he might fall out.
“Jeremy be careful!” she squealed with fear and delight.
It always seemed to take such a long time for Jeremy to say his goodbyes, although Ruth knew that she was equally responsible for it all. She never wanted to release him when the time came for him to go home, and she knew that he lingered as long as he could every time.
Once the carriage disappeared out of sight, Ruth sighed, turned, and made her way back into the house.
“Has your young man finally consented to go home?” her father said humorously when she made her way into the drawing room.
“Yes, he has, Papa,” Ruth said, enjoying the sound of the word Papa on her lips.
Even though it had been a year, every now and again she still slipped up and referred to her father as Lord Cunningham, something which always made her blush a little awkwardly.
For herself, Ruth had no particular feelings of disquiet at her sudden change in station. As far as she was concerned, she was the same person she had always been. The only thing that was different was that she now knew where she came from at last, and her feelings of dislocation of the preceding years had evaporated entirely.
But she knew that her father and sister both suffered a great deal of guilt at the idea that she had worked as a servant in their home, a person who was generally accepted to be less than the rest of the household. But Ruth had never once felt less than anybody; she had something of a deeper understanding of the world than most.
Whilst she understood that society had its rules, and it was in her best interests not to fall foul of them, she never truly gave them any credence. Ruth knew people were all born equal, just by dint of the fact they opened their eyes and lived and breathed in the world. Whatever circumstances existed at the time of birth, existence always made a person good enough.
But she also knew that England was not ready for such things and very likely never would be. It was not simply greed and ego which kept things as they were, it was the collective need for the approval of others, and Ruth could not help thinking that it might be the heaviest cross of all to bear.
But Ruth did not need anybody’s approval, she never had. If only she could explain that to her father and sister, perhaps it would relieve a little of the guilt she would not have had them suffer for a kingdom.
“Do you know, he dangles so far out of that wretched window that one day he will land face-down on the gravel,” her father said and chuckled.
“Yes, I was perfectly well aware of your presence at the upstairs window, Papa,” Ruth said in mock admonishment.
“Well, I do like to see young people in love. It does an old man’s heart good, you know.” He smiled at her, his pale blue eyes and pale grey hair lending him a surprising amount of warmth.
“How on earth do you know that we are in love? I mean, I like him very much.” She was enjoying her father’s teasing conversation as she always did.
“Oh, for goodness sake, I recognize the signs. I have not always been one hundred and twenty-seven years old, child.”
“No, I daresay there was a time when you were one hundred and twenty-six.”
“My word, but you are too clever for me.” He laughed heartily. “But you must forgive me my occasional prying. You really are very dear to me, Ruth, and I should like to know that you are happy. I should also like to know that the young man who spins you almost off your feet in the garden is good enough for you.”
“Thank you, Papa,” Ruth said and rose from her seat to join her father on the couch.
She only ever sat at his side for a few moments, occasionally holding his hand. Although it was clear that the Baron’s faithful household staff had a very good idea of what had changed in the house, still Ruth was very cautious when it came to her own behaviour.
She was perfectly well aware that she did not have a particular role at Thurlow Manor, given that the woman whom everybody thought her mistress for so many years had married and moved away.
But nobody treated her any differently, and so she gathered that the rest of the staff at Thurlow had simply accepted things as they were.
There had never been any gossip outside of the house that had come to meet her ears, nor her father’s as far as she was aware. Still, she would continue to apply caution until she was finally married.
“Well, is he?” her father pressed.
“Is Jeremy Moorcroft good enough for me?” Ruth said with a broad smile. “Oh, I should say so, Papa.”
“What I mean is, is he a good enough man?” The old Baron’s brow furrowed in thought. “I do not mean does he have enough money, enough social standing, enough land. I mean does he have enough character, enough humour, enough love in his heart? Because in the end, my dear, those are the things which matter the most.”
“He is a good man, Papa. And you know well that I care little for money, social standing, and land. I had never thought to marry a man such as Jeremy, in truth, for I had thought myself destined for a man of much simpler occupations. And I would never have minded, as long as the man had a bright mind and a good heart.”
“I know, my dear. You are so sensible, so very wise, that I know I ought not to worry about you. But I am your father, and I have taken that responsibility little enough over the years that I think you must allow me to catch up now.”
“You must not think that way, Papa,” Ruth said and squeezed his old hand. “As unusual as my early life might have been, you always acted as a father. You made sure that I was cared for, that you knew where I was. You did not have me bundled away to an orphanage so that you could forget me and treat me as a simple mistake, did you? And as soon as you were able to bring me into your life, you did just that. You have looked out for me in very awkward circumstances, and you must never think me to be anything other than grateful to you for that.”
“You really are a most remarkable daughter,” Lucas said, and she could see him blink back emotional tears.
Ruth’s thoughts turned to Jeremy Moorcroft, just as they were prone to do of late. It was her father’s conversation earlier that day in the drawing room, however, that had made her think of the first time she had met her handsome, fair-haired beau.
It was sometime shortly after Charlotte had married James Harrington when their father, quite out of character, decided that he would host a little celebration at Thurlow Manor.
Ruth and Charlotte had been most amused by it all, knowing how their father had spent many years avoiding such things. But between them, they decided that the celebration, although ostensibly with regard to the marriage of his daughter to the Duke of Sandford, was truly his own celebration that the truth was not only out but had been embraced warmly.
The affair was a garden party, something which Ruth had always longed for them to have at Thurlow Manor. The gardens were so rambling and so full of interest that it was the ideal place for such an event, and given that it took place in early summer, everywhere was at its most beautiful and fragrant.
Now that Ruth had the official title of Companion to the Duchess of Sandford, any idea of duties within Thurlow Manor was a distant memory. She had a certain status now, one that was often conferred to daughters of Barons, and she mar of Barons, and sveled at how others in society now treated her.
Before, she had been quite invisible. But with her sister’s elevated status had seemed to come her own.
For Ruth, it was nothing more than an observation, an amusement at the way everybody seemed to lead their lives by a set of agreed rules; rules that had been determined by God alone knew who.
Still, none of it mattered to Ruth, and she had decided to enjoy what was very likely going to prove to be the one and only garden party ever held at Thurlow.
On that afternoon, the Duke and Duchess of Sandford could hardly get a minute to themselves; everybody present wanted to be introduced to them, even the ones who already knew Charlotte well enough.
Ruth did not envy them for a moment and secretly took herself away, knowing that she would never be in trouble with the Duchess of Sandford for neglecting her duties. After all, her duties were nothing more than a little idea, something to improve her life and her station without ever reducing her to the status of staff ever again.
“Will you not get a roasting for wandering away so far?” A fair-haired young man with a broad smile approached her as she stood a little out of things by the camellia garden.
“No, I shall not get a roasting,” she said and laughed. “The Duchess is very easy to work for.”
“I suppose you have known her for a very long time?” he went on, and Ruth began to suspect that he was angling for her to get him an introduction to the Duke and Duchess.
“Many years.” She smiled back at him and thought he had such pleasant face.
He really was very handsome, but then so were a lot of young men. He was perhaps three-and-twenty, just a little older than herself, and there was an openness to his expression that was very much more appealing to Ruth than his simple handsomeness.
“Well, if you are not going to get into any trouble at all, perhaps you would allow me to fetch you a glass of punch and sit and talk with me for a while?”
“Yes, that would be very nice indeed.” Ruth was taken aback by the turn of events.
She had truly not thought that she was his reason for approaching at all, and to realize that she was, was pleasantly unsettling.
She sat down on a bench by the side of the camellia garden, still a little out of the main group, but not so far away as to appear indecent whilst in conversation with the young man. She watched him returning with a glass of peach-coloured fruit punch in each hand. He locked eyes with her as he walked and smiled all the way.
He really was a very appealing, very attractive young man.
“I realize that I forgot to introduce myself. Do you mind at all that my manners are a little lacking at times?” he said brightly as he sat at her side and handed her the glass.
“No, not at all. Manners are all very well in their place, but they must not be allowed to take over things,” she said and was pleased to hear him laugh loudly.
“I think I am going to like you very well,” he said when he had finished laughing.
“And I think I am going to like you very well, whoever you are,” she said and gave him a mischievous smile.
“Oh yes, I am Jeremy Moorcroft,” he said and performed a most awkward and amusing bow whilst he still sat. “And I am very pleased to meet you.”
“Nice to make your acquaintance, Mr Moorcroft. And I am Ruth Clarkin,” she said and set her glass down on the bench before humorously taking the fabric of her skirts in both hands and feigning a curtsy while she, too, remained seated.
“You are very quick and observant,” he said and laughed at her mimicking of his own behaviour.
“And you are very kind to say so,” she said, and as the two of them smiled at one another openly and without any of the usual trepidation of social encounters, Ruth felt suddenly very sure that she had just met the man she was going to fall deeply in love with.
“Papa, might I speak with you about something that has been troubling me?” Ruth said some days later.
She had been looking for her father for a while and found him out in the garden preparing to make the gardener’s life a misery with his awful suggestions and floundering attempts at assistance.
“Is it very urgent, my dear? I only ask because I had wanted to speak to the gardener about something.” He looked over at the man who was approaching with a look of resignation on his face.
“I am afraid it is,” she said, giving the gardener a knowing smile as she led the Baron away.
“Very well, but you must remind me to return to the gardener later,” he said in a whisper. “I really do have a few ideas that I think he will be very pleased to hear.”
“I am sure of it,” Ruth said and bit back laughter, knowing from years of experience that the Baron had no real common sense when it came to practical matters at all, and yet he would try to help.
Well, at least she had spared the gardener for a little while if nothing else.
“Did you want to go back into the house?” he said and smiled at her. “Or would you like to take a little walk around the grounds since it is such a beautiful day?”
“A walk, I think. But we really must be out of the way, Papa.”
“Very well,” he said and began to head towards the perimeter wall of his small estate.
Once they reached it, shielded from the view of everybody by the yew trees which grew up all around, he held out his arm for her to take.
“Papa, I do believe that Jeremy is going to propose to me any minute.”
“You mean he is here?” her father said and looked around in a way which made Ruth laugh.
“No, he is not here.” She shook her head and smiled. “What I mean is, I am certain that he is preparing himself to propose to me. I can feel it.”
“And yet you look a little dismayed,” the Baron said and paused for a moment to eye her steadily.
“I am not at all dismayed by the idea of a life spent with a wonderful man like Jeremy,” she said, immediately wanting to allay any fears he might have on the matter.
“But?” he said, raising his eyebrows high.
“Papa, I do not want my life with Jeremy to be built on a lie,” she said and knew that her father would instantly perceive her meaning.
He remained quiet for a few moments, and she hoped that he was not fearful of what was to come. But when he smiled and turned to resume their walk, she knew that he was simply thinking things through.
“You want to tell him that I am your father?”
“I really do, Papa. This is supposed to be the most important relationship of my life, the greatest friendship, is it not?”
“Second most important, my dear,” he said and winked at her.
“Oh yes, of course,” Ruth said and played along, chuckling just as her father was.
“Well, I think you already know the answer, Ruth.”
“I know the answer for myself, but I do not know it for you. I am certain that Jeremy would never turn his back on me for knowing the truth, even though I must admit myself a little nervous at the prospect of telling it to him.”
“And yet you are still troubled?”
“I am because I would not want you to think that I would ever lightly do something that might hurt you.”
“And I never suspected you, my dear,” he said and paused again, turning her to face him, his hands on her narrow shoulders. “Ruth, you are truly a very wise young woman, and I think you know your own heart better than anybody else. You do not want to live with a secret, and I for one can completely understand that. I lived with a secret for so many years that it almost swallowed me whole. It tore at my conscience and gnawed on my soul, and I never felt content. But now that the secret is told, now that the truth has been parted with, I feel very different.”
“And so, you think I should do it?”
“I am certain of it, although I cannot promise you that your young man will behave in the way you think he will. You must not forget that the rigours of society are ingrained in people and are very difficult to circumvent.” He looked at her sadly. “However much he loves you, you must not underestimate the power of upbringing.”
“I think that it is a chance I must take, a risk I must accept,” she said and realized that her fear had not diminished at all.
What if Jeremy really did find himself in the grip of societal normality when she told him? What if he found that he could do no other than despise her, despite the love he had felt for her?
But she had seen what secrets could do, and Ruth knew that she could never live like that either. She could not put her head in the sand.
“I wish I could be more helpful to you,” her father said and leaned across to kiss the top of her head.
“You have been more helpful to me than you know, Papa,” she said and smiled, her decision made.
“You must know that I want to marry you, Ruth,” Jeremy said with a broad smile as they sat on their favourite bench by the camellia garden.
“Goodness me, is that supposed to serve as a proposal?” Ruth said and laughed, pretending to look affronted.
“Would it do?”
“No, I do not think it would.” She laughed and looked pointedly at the neatly cut grass.
When Jeremy rose, and she knew that he was about to drop to one knee in front of her, she reached out to take his hand and motion that he should sit down again.
“Have you changed your mind already?” he said in an uncharacteristically fearful way.
“No, I know my feelings for you, Jeremy, and I know that they will never change as long as there is breath in my body.”
“But something is wrong?” he said and turned on the bench to take both her hands in his and look into her eyes. “You must tell me, Ruth. Do not leave me hanging in agony wondering if I shall ever be able to spend the rest of my life with you.”
“As far as I am concerned, you may spend the rest of your life with me. I know that I want nothing more than that in this world, and I also know that I shall never be happy with anything less,” she said firmly. “But I must first tell you something. I must give you the fullest facts of my origins and allow you to think about it, to truly decide if you would still want to spend the rest of your life with me.”
“There is nothing you can say, Ruth Clarkin, that would ever turn me away from you,” he said and made to rise again. “I do not care what it is, and I do not care if you never tell me.”
“No, you must sit,” Ruth said and laughed at his exuberance. “I must tell it to you for my own peace of mind.”
“Very well, but make it fast,” he said and laughed. “I am a bundle of nerves as it is.”
“I realize that you have never met my family, the Clarkins in Hollerton,” she began and could see a certain recognition in his face. “I myself have not seen them for many years.”
“It matters not to me, my dear. If there is some reason why you do not care for your family, then I do not care for them. And if they win your favour again in the future, they shall win mine.”
“That is very sweet of you, Jeremy. But I must tell you that John and Hetty Clarkin are not my parents,” she said and felt suddenly a little warm, a little nauseous.
She had reached the point of no return; she had begun her tale, and now she must finish it, come what may.
“Yes,” Jeremy said, confusing her somewhat.
“Yes?” she said and raised her eyebrows at him.
“Yes, I realized that.”
“Then perhaps you have realized my true origins?”
“No person seeing you with Baron Cunningham could be left in any doubt whatsoever. I have never seen a father more enchanted with his daughter, nor a daughter more caring for the most important man in her young life.”
“But you never said anything.”
“It was not my place to say it.”
“I am glad that I have said it to you, even though you seem to have already received it.”
“And I am glad too, for I know that you must have suffered in making this decision. It would not have changed things for me had you never told me, for I could never live without you. But now I think I love you even more if that is possible. You really are the bravest woman, Ruth, and I knew that day when we first sat here on this bench that I would fall in love with you and stay that way for the rest of my life.”
“How strange, I knew it too,” Ruth said as her happy tears began to roll down her face.
“Now then, might I please be allowed to go about the anxiety-riddled business of proposing? Or do you have something else that you would like to say before I kneel on the lawn?” He grinned at her broadly and dropped down to one knee.
“No, please do go ahead,” Ruth said in a voice made high-pitched with the emotion.
“Ruth Cunningham, I love you more than any person in this world, and I always shall. Would you do me the great honour of becoming my wife?” he said, his handsome, open face suddenly serious.
On hearing herself described as Ruth Cunningham, not Clarkin, she felt her heart might burst. While she knew she was soon to be Ruth Moorcroft, to be acknowledged by another as the daughter of her beloved father meant more to her than she could ever say.
“Of course, I shall,” she said and sniffed loudly, holding one of his hands while she desperately searched with the other for a handkerchief. “And I do love you so much.”
“Well, it seems my nerves have abated now that the thing is done.” He rose from his kneeling position and pulled her to her feet also. “What do you say you take me into the house now so that I can ask your father?”
“I think he would like that very much indeed.”
“And I want you both to know that it is the Baron who will be giving you away on that day. No other man will take that right away from him. And I shall see to it that people keep their little questions to themselves.”
“I think my father would be very grateful to you for that,” she said and found that she was crying again. “Goodness me, I must pull myself together before I see him, or he will tease me mercilessly.” She dabbed furiously at her eyes again but knew that there was no use.
Not only had Jeremy not turned away from her in the face of the truth, but he had pulled her to him closer still. And not only had he accepted her without question, but he had accepted the only other man in the world who truly mattered to her.
“Oh look, there he is,” Jeremy said and pointed to where the Baron appeared to be in hot pursuit of the gardener.
“Oh quick, call him before he catches up with the poor man,” Ruth said and laughed.
With tears of joy and open laughter, Ruth knew that she had never been happier in her entire life and, despite the uncertainty of so many years, she had reached a state of true contentment that would never be surpassed.