Although Winton House in Devonshire was very much smaller than her father’s estate in Hertfordshire, Georgina Jeffries instantly warmed to it.
It was a fine old house of many quirks, crooked corridors, and narrow secret staircases here, there, and everywhere. And it was set in the most beautiful grounds, both neat and rambling all at once.
From Georgina’s chamber window she looked down on a small lake surrounded by beautiful trees and luscious green shrubbery. And all around the water’s edge were daffodils, as yet unopened, but with buds enough to promise a fine display when spring began to turn warmer.
“May I come in, Georgina?” came the tentative voice of her cousin Fleur from the other side of the door.
“Yes, of course,” Georgina said brightly and turned to smile at Fleur as she came cautiously into the room. “I have just been looking at the view. Really, I do not think I have seen anything so pretty in a long time.”
“That is why I told Papa you ought to have this chamber. It really does have the nicest view of the lake, and when the daffodils are out, there are so many that they seem to glow when you look down upon them.” Fleur smiled.
Although the two had met many years before, they were but girls, and Georgina could barely remember the experience at all. Fleur’s father, Felix Allencourt, had made the journey from Devonshire to Hertfordshire many years ago to see his cousin, Georgina’s father. He had taken his young daughter with him, leaving his son behind as comfort and company to his ailing wife.
Georgina had never met her second cousin Fleur’s mother, but she knew that she had died some ten years before.
“It really is so kind of you to have spent so much of your day showing me around the place. And I cannot tell you how comfortable I am already here at Winton House, for it really is such a lovely place. I can hardly wait to see the sea; I so rarely have a chance of it being landlocked back home at Ashdown Manor.”
“If I concentrate very hard, I can almost remember Ashdown Manor,” Fleur said thoughtfully. “Well, I can remember how large it is, at any rate.” She laughed.
“Yes, it is very large. But I cannot think that I have ever seen a house so well situated as your own. Devonshire really is the most beautiful county, is it not?”
“I would never wish to leave it.” Fleur advanced a little further into the room somewhat shyly. “I thought you might like some help unpacking your gowns and what have you.”
“Oh, yes please, that would be most welcome,” Georgina said and looked down at her open and unpacked trunk. “I seem to have brought rather a lot with me.” She laughed.
“Well, that means that you may stay for a long time.” Fleur looked extremely pleased with the prospect. “And I would be very glad of your company. I have friends, of course, but it would be so nice to have a woman of my own age in the house for a while. Jeremy is a fine and attentive brother, but he is a brother.” She laughed. “And Great-Aunt Belle is a wonderful lady with many stories, but alas she forgets that I have heard the stories over and over again.”
“My grandmother was the same,” Georgina said brightly as she thought that she and her cousin might get on very well indeed. “And I am keen to meet Great-Aunt Belle to see if she is anything like my grandmother, given that they were sisters.”
“I must admit that I am not sure that they were the greatest of friends when they were young girls together,” Fleur said cautiously. “And I also must warn you that Great-Aunt Belle often speaks her mind with little thought to the impact it might have on another. She is very old and often very sweet, so I must beg your forgiveness on her behalf in advance.”
“Good heavens, she sounds like my grandmother already. She was also a woman who did not spare anybody’s feelings when she had something to say.” Georgina laughed and reached into the trunk for the first of her gowns. “I am already looking forward to meeting her, and you need not worry about anything. Your family has been so kind already, and I cannot tell you how pleased I am to be here.”
And it was true, Georgina really was pleased to be in Devonshire and the home of her cousins. As the only child of Baron Charles Jeffries and his wife, Jane, Georgina had often felt lonely.
Like Fleur, she had friends of her own, although they were few, but they now seemed so keen to marry that she did not see them anywhere near as much as she might have liked.
She had always wanted a sister, often feeling a little envious of friends who were so blessed. But now that she was at Winton House with Fleur, she had high hopes of finding just that close relationship at last.
“I think the two of us will get along very well indeed,” Fleur said as she gently hung one of Georgina’s gowns. “I say, this gown is awfully pretty.”
“Thank you, it is one of my favourites.” Georgina smiled as she looked at the gown, a well-fitting garment in a very deep blue velvet; a colour which suited her pale complexion perfectly.
“When you are feeling a little better, Georgina, I think we must find a wonderful ball to attend so that you might wear that gown,” Fleur said excitedly. “Or, at the very least, a dance at the assembly rooms.”
“In truth, I am already feeling much better than I have done for some weeks. I think the promise of a change of scenery and a chance to meet family I have not seen since I was a child has done much to improve my health.”
“But we must be careful; we must not set you back in any way,” Fleur said seriously. “As the spring down here can be quite deceptive. Especially being so close to the sea, you must take care to keep well wrapped because there is often a keen breeze.”
“I shall take care, I promise.”
Georgina, ordinarily hale and hearty, had suffered from a lung infection which had seen her bedridden from Christmas until late February.
It had come as a great surprise to all, given that nobody could remember Georgina being ill since childhood.
When she had finally declared that she was well enough to be up and about again, her mother and father had been greatly relieved. But it had been necessary to keep to Ashdown Manor and out of the cold, so much so that Georgina had become a little melancholy.
The stronger she got, the more listless Georgina became. She had not seen friends and acquaintances for several weeks and had the dreadful sensation that the world had moved on without her whilst she had remained standing still.
When her father had suggested writing off to his cousin in Devonshire to ask that she might convalesce in new surroundings, Georgina had felt an immediate sense of excitement. She had never been to Devonshire but had remembered her grandmother telling her what a beautiful place it was. Not only that, but there were cousins of her own age and the prospect of meeting other new people.
Her mother, of course, had been reluctant. The illness had terrified her, especially when it was at its height, and she had feared, secretly, that she might lose her only child.
Georgina, being a bright and perceptive young woman, had recognized her mother’s reluctance to let her go immediately and had done much to allay her fears with promises that she would barely move from Winton House until it was fully summer. She would only go outside for a few minutes here and there to get some fresh air and nothing more.
With her mother suitably placated, Georgina silently hoped for much more excitement than she had promised her mother she would be a party to. She wanted to walk by the sea and take every opportunity to enjoy herself and to meet new people. Still, Jane Jeffries did not need to hear all about her hopes and dreams for her time in Devonshire.
“Although I must admit it would be wonderful if you were able to attend a garden party at Calder Hall in a fortnight’s time.”
“Calder Hall?” Georgina said with interest.
“Yes, it is the home of the Duke of Calder, Emerson Lockhart.”
“Emerson Lockhart? What a fine name,” Georgina said, already determined that she would most certainly be well enough to go to a garden party on a Duke’s estate, even if she did have to wrap up warm for it.
“Yes, it is a fine name.” Fleur smiled.
“And is he a fine man?”
“I do not know as yet, cousin. He is the new Duke, you see, and still very young. He is not much older than we are, Georgina, at perhaps just one and twenty years.”
“Goodness, that is very young to be a Duke,” Georgina said and tried to imagine herself with such a responsibility just two years hence. “His father must have passed away so prematurely. It seems awfully sad.”
“Very sad,” Fleur said solemnly. “But he was not quite as young as you might suspect. The old Duke was easily in his middle fifties, although that is still no great age I daresay.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“Especially when you look at Great-Aunt Belle.” Fleur smiled mischievously. “Whose age I cannot even begin to imagine.”
Georgina laughed along with Fleur, pleased to find herself so at ease with her cousin and so quickly.
“But have you not met Emerson Lockhart before? I mean before his father passed away?”
“No, not once,” Fleur said in a gossipy tone. “Although I must admit that my father was not terribly well acquainted with the old Duke and his wife when they were alive. And Emerson Lockhart did not seem to grow up at Calder Hall, as I understand it. There is some talk of him having been unwell as an infant and child, and he did not really appear until he was much older.” Fleur screwed up her face as if she was not entirely sure that what she was saying was correct. “And then I suppose he would have been away at school and what have you.”
“So, he would appear to be quite mysterious.”
“Yes, I wonder if that is why he is giving this garden party. He has invited a great many people from the county, I believe.”
“And when did he become the Duke?”
“But six months ago.”
“I must admit myself already curious to see him.”
“I think much of the county is curious to see him if I am honest. This is to be his first event, for I believe he has kept himself very quiet at Calder Hall these last months, although he is often seen about on matters of Duchy business, or so my father tells me at any rate.”
“Your father has met him then?”
“Once or twice, I believe. They shared the same attorney, and I think that they found themselves in one another’s company on account of it.”
“But they do not share the same attorney now?”
“Unfortunately, my father’s attorney passed away some weeks ago. It was a great shame because he seemed like a very nice man indeed. And he kept working right up until the last, even though I am sure that he cannot have been much younger than Great-Aunt Belle.”
“Oh dear, that is a shame.”
“But listen to me, I am bombarding you with so much information and local gossip that you must already be tired of me,” Fleur said apologetically.
Fleur really was sweet, and she looked so much like Georgina that the two of them really could have passed for sisters. They were both fair, although Georgina’s hair was a paler blonde than her cousin’s. And they both had bright blue eyes, just as each of their fathers did.
“Not at all; I do love to hear gossip,” Georgina said, and Fleur laughed loudly. “I know I should not admit to such a thing, but it is true. And these last months I have been so starved for information of the outside world that I am very hungry for any news I get, even news concerning people I have never met and do not know.”
“Sometimes that is the best news to get,” Fleur carried on, clearly emboldened by her cousin’s open admission. “Because you can hear the gossip first and then get to know the people concerned afterward. I think it makes it much more interesting and exciting.”
“So do I,” Georgina agreed. “Oh, Fleur, I am beginning to feel glad that I fell ill at Christmas.”
“Glad? But why?”
“Because it has brought me here, has it not? I do so love Ashdown Manor, but my few friends are all so keen to marry that they seem to have drifted away from me, even before I became unwell. But to be here now and find that you and I are so alike is such a wonderful thing to me.”
“You really think we are alike?”
“Well, we look alike,” Georgina began. “And we both like a bit of harmless, interesting gossip.”
“Yes, that is true.”
“And we have both missed out on having a sister, so that is just one more thing in common.”
“And I am so glad that you are here too, Georgina. Although I must say that I am sorry that you had to suffer so much beforehand to get here. Your mother and father must have been terribly worried.”
“They were, especially my mother. But then I suppose mothers always are.”
“Yes,” Fleur said quietly.
“Oh, forgive me, Fleur. That was insensitive of me.”
“No, it was not insensitive at all. My mother died so many years ago now that I am over that searing pain. I miss her, of course, but I am able to remember her fondly. I can be grateful now for the time that I did have with her, for she truly was a wonderful, warm mother.”
“I am only sorry that I never had the chance to meet her,” Georgina said truthfully. “But at least I shall get to meet Jeremy when he returns home next week.” She decided to change the subject just a little.
“My brother will like you very well indeed, and I am sure that you will like him once you get used to his silliness,” Fleur said and smiled with an almost motherly indulgence.
“And is Jeremy really so silly?” Georgina said, hoping that he was for she really did like a person with a sense of fun.
“He is, but he is always laughing and is such a nice brother to have around. I only hope that he behaves himself properly at the garden party.”
“Perhaps, between us, we can keep him entertained,” Georgina said, making it clear that she was determined to be well enough to attend.
“I think we have much to look forward to, cousin.”
“We most certainly do, Fleur.”
“So, Cook has already begun the baking that we will need for the day, and the last of the fresh produce will be arriving tomorrow, Your Grace.” Mrs Thistlethwaite, the housekeeper at Calder Hall, was a woman who was both warm and efficient.
“Mrs Thistlethwaite, I am truly grateful for all your hard work,” Emerson Lockhart said and meant it. “Without you, I would not have known where to begin.”
“You do not need to know where to begin with such things, Your Grace. And it is true to say that your father never knew where to begin in such things either. But a Duke has other duties to attend to and must not worry over the ins and outs of the preparations for social occasions. You have a fine staff, Your Grace, and if you simply leave it to them, they will never let you down.”
“Yes, they really are very fine. You all are.”
“You are so kind, Your Grace.”
“And so, there is nothing that I need to do before Saturday? No matters that I must attend to for the garden party to go ahead without a wrinkle?”
“None at all, Your Grace. Mr Murray has all the other arrangements under control, and all of the footmen and maids are already well aware of their duties on the day.”
“And I daresay they have done it all before,” Emerson said with a smile. “Although I cannot remember attending one of my father’s garden parties.” He looked thoughtful.
“No, Your Grace, I cannot think that you have. I daresay you were at Eton or Oxford the last time there was a garden party here. Probably Oxford, I think, for it cannot have been so long ago.”
“Well, you have me assured that everything will go well, and I am very thankful for that.”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Mrs Thistlethwaite said, perceptively recognizing that the conversation was coming to an end, just as any good housekeeper of many years standing might.
Mrs Thistlethwaite bobbed a very brief curtsy before making her way out of the drawing room and leaving her master alone once more.
Emerson knew that he had closed down their conversation the minute that it had begun to skirt around the edges of his life. He always shied away from the topic, always keeping in mind his father’s advice.
He knew well that his household staff was not as easily fooled as others in the county. No doubt when he had first appeared at Calder Hall for the first time as a boy of twelve, the servants must have had many conversations between themselves as to his true origins.
Talk of a lifetime of grave illnesses which had kept the boy away from his family home and the care of his mother for so long might well have satisfied most in the county, but Emerson knew that it could not possibly have satisfied the staff; people who had lived and worked at Calder Hall for so long that they must surely have had their own suspicions.
Particularly when the boy was not introduced to the family home until after the Duchess herself had passed away after a long illness.
And yet the Duchess’ chronic poor health had certainly lent some weight to the idea that her child had been equally cursed in his own well-being.
Either way, his father had urged him never to be drawn into discussions of such a nature, to give away nothing that would make known his true origins and the start in life that would have been so at odds with anything that anybody around him might have suspected.
And yet it was the longest-serving members of the household staff who had always accepted his presence without hesitation and had shown him such great kindness.
Mrs Thistlethwaite had been the housekeeper at Calder Hall since the last Duke and his wife had first been married. And Mr Murray, who had been but a second footman at the time, had proved himself a fine and loyal servant who had made his way into the position of butler before Emerson had arrived.
They were both trusted servants in something of an old-fashioned style, two people who would silently hold their master’s secrets all the way to the grave, without ever once alluding to them. And he had no doubt that Mr Murray and Mrs Thistlethwaite would always stem the tide of any gossip they heard below stairs, making sure that every member of the household was as loyal as they were.
But, as kind as the two of them had been, Emerson felt most keenly the fact that he did not have any blood kin on the earth, at least as far as he knew.
Even when the Duke had still been alive, a man who had told him most clearly that he was his father, still Emerson had not felt that he truly belonged.
Perhaps if he had known his father for all his life and had not met him for the first time when he was already eleven years old, the two of them might have been closer. Emerson had never doubted his father’s love for him, the man had gone to such lengths to see that his son had a place in the world. But still, he had never felt truly comfortable, always having a sense of his old life and the feeling that he was a square peg in a round hole.
If only Garrett Winstanley had not so suddenly died. Of course, as a man in his early seventies who was still so intent upon continuing his duties as an attorney, perhaps it ought not to have been quite such a shock when his heart gave out without warning.
Emerson had found Garrett Winstanley something of a warm character, almost a grandfather figure who always engendered a feeling of security in the young man. And Emerson had always known that Garrett had much more information about Emerson’s beginnings than he had ever said.
He was as loyal to the old Duke as the rest of the household, keeping that man’s secrets right up until the end.
If only Emerson had determined to question Garrett Winstanley the moment the old Duke had passed away. Perhaps if he had taken his courage in both hands immediately, the old attorney might have relented and given him the information that would have made it, he assumed, so much easier to settle into his life and his duties.
It might even have convinced him that the old Duke really was his own father and that he did have a right to be where he was. Perhaps, had he spoken to Garrett, Emerson Lockhart might have felt sure of his place in the world, more comfortable with the idea that he really was now the Duke of Calder.
Garrett had been the first person that Emerson had met when he had begun his new life. Garrett had been the man who had taken him from the old place and brought him to Devonshire to hastily meet the Duke of Calder before being spirited away and coached in manners and bearing so that he might be inserted into life at Eton without drawing too much attention to himself.
But when he tried to think of it all, there was so much that seemed to have passed by in a blur. There was always the idea that he would give himself away and, in doing so, give his father away also. It had been such a tremendous weight for such a young boy to bear, and the concentration that was ever present was so arduous that he very quickly began to forget the details of his life before. Not entirely, but it had always seemed that there was just not room enough for him to think about it with everything else that he had to consider.
“You must not fill your head with so much that does not need to be there, my boy,” his father had said when a fourteen-year-old Emerson had asked him once again to explain how it was he came to be at Calder Hall.
He was home from Eton for the summer and, having only been resident at Calder Hall now and again in the three years since his new life had begun, Emerson was still struggling to adjust. Calder Hall did not feel like home, and yet neither did Eton. He knew that he had had a home once and could remember it quite clearly if he turned his mind to it. But now nowhere seemed like home, and he had genuinely hoped that the man who had told him he was his father could tell him why it was he felt that there was no place for him anywhere.
“But perhaps if you told me a little bit about how I came to be here, Father, I might be better prepared for awkward questions at school,” the young Emerson had ventured, hoping to get around his father that way.
“Why? Have you been asked awkward questions?” the old Duke said and seemed suddenly disconcerted.
“No, Father, no. Not yet, at any rate. I am just worried what I might say if I am asked, though.”
“The master at Eton is very well aware of the situation. He is well informed by Garrett Winstanley that you were gravely ill as an infant and spent much of your time away in treatment and convalescence. He knows that you did not regain your full-strength for some years and were unable to return home fully until you had.”
“But that is not true, is it? I have never been gravely ill, Father, not once.”
“I know, Emerson, but you must keep it in your head that you were. If you train your memory to believe it to be true, it will be so much easier to stick to it, do you see?”
“I do see, but I just do not see why. Am I truly your son? Am I really supposed to be here?”
“You are my son, Emerson. I promise you that you are my son.”
“Then why did you not keep me here with you before? Why did I live somewhere else so long? Did you not want me here?”
“Emerson, it is all very difficult to explain.”
“Did the Duchess know about me? She was not my mother, was she?” Emerson said cautiously and was gratified to see the look on his father’s face.
Finally, he had found out some of the truth, despite the fact that he had been quite certain of it anyway. But his father’s countenance had let him know very clearly that he was certainly not the product of the union between the Duke and Duchess of Calder.”
“No, she did not know about you,” his father said quietly and looked down for a moment. “But you are my son, and you do have every right to be here. But things would go very much more easily for you if you let go of this. And things would certainly go very much better for you if all around believed you to be the son of my wife and not the son of another woman. You understand?”
“Yes, I think so,” Emerson said, knowing that his father was very likely trying to protect him against any kind of future scandal, or past scandal at any rate.
“Then that is an end to it, is it not?”
“Yes, Sir,” Emerson said meekly, and then before he could stop himself, he went on, “But who is my mother? Did I ever have a mother?”
“Everybody has a mother, my dear boy.”
“But why can I not remember mine? And where is she now? Why can I not see her?”
“I am sorry to tell you that you will never see your mother. No good will come of you wondering about a woman who has always been beyond your reach.”
“Beyond my reach?” Emerson said, fearing the worst. “She is dead?”
“Yes,” his father said solemnly after a long pause in which Emerson thought he might not answer him at all. “And so, you must remember everything I told you about your past, the past that the world should believe.”
“That I was a seriously ill infant who could not be here at Calder Hall.”
“Precisely so.” His father smiled and ruffled his hair. “That’s my boy, you are clever enough to manage, I am sure.”
“Yes, Sir,” Emerson said quietly, knowing that he was certainly clever enough to know that he would never get any more information out of his father than that which he had gleaned that day.
Despite his smile, he knew that the door had been closed for him. He would never know who his mother was or why his early years had been spent the way they had. All he could safely assume was that his father, a man married to an invalid for so very long, had had a love affair with another woman, one who had borne him a child in secret.
And he had been so much of a secret that his father had not called for him until his own wife was so gravely ill that it was clear she would not survive.
The Duke and Duchess had been sadly childless, a thing which had always left Emerson wondering if his father would have been so keen to seek him out had he not had a legitimate son of his own.
But such thoughts could do nothing but give him pain and, as he had grown into an educated and cultured young man, Emerson had tried to dismiss such musings. He had taken his father’s advice and tried to train his mind to believe that the story of his life was, in fact, the truth of it.
And yet, when Garrett Winstanley had finally departed this mortal coil, the old feelings had begun to resurface. The idea that Emerson had missed his one and only chance to discover who he truly was had seemed somehow to open the gates and allow the old doubts and curiosity to flood back in.
Still, there was nothing to be done about it now. He was the Duke of Calder, and there was none who had known any different or dared to suggest otherwise.
All that remained was for him to become a part of the Duchy, at last, to be its figurehead, to be its Duke. And perhaps, if his garden party went well, it would be a start.
My new novel “A Damsel for the Mysterious Duke” is coming soon! Stay tuned for the announcement!
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Following the death of her beloved father, Ella Winfield is devastated when her mother, a woman with untamed social aspirations, hastily marries the Earl of Dandridge. He is a humorless man, and one whom Ella does not trust for a moment. Leaving her beloved Longton Manor behind, Ella is cast adrift in the large and unwelcoming Dandridge Hall, despite her desperate plea that her mother need not marry at all.
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