“My dear, what a beautiful child she is growing up to be. What is she now? Two, three?” Lady Brightwell said as she and the Duchess of Hillington awaited their tea tray in the drawing room.
“Phoebe will soon be three, and I can hardly believe it. Really, it seems like just minutes since I first came here to Hillington.” Ella laughed as she watched her daughter scampering around the room. “And fear not, as soon as the tea tray arrives, the maid is going to take Phoebe back to her nurse.”
“Oh no, what a shame,” Lady Brightwell said genuinely.
“You think that now, my dear Constance, but Phoebe starts off very well. She is all shy smiles for the first ten minutes, and then, when she is accustomed to her new company, she climbs all over them like a monkey and becomes quite unruly. I am afraid she is a very spirited little girl.”
“And if she is spirited, my dear, then I can only state that she has followed in her mother’s footsteps.” Both women laughed as the maid entered the room with the tea tray.
The moment that the maid was gone and Ella was pouring tea for the both of them, Lady Brightwell smoothed down her gown and began to speak.
“My dear, how is Violet?”
“Almost ready to have that child now, I do believe.” Ella laughed. “And what a fine mother she will be.”
“I have no doubt; I have always thought her the cleverest woman, very resourceful,” Lady Brightwell said, her approval obvious.
“I could not have done without her when Phoebe was first born.”
“And I have no doubt that Violet will not be able to do without you when her first child finally comes.” Lady Brightwell smiled warmly. “But that is what friends are for, are they not? And tell me, how is that fine husband of hers doing?”
“Rufus tells me that he is the most efficient overseer that the Duchy of Hillington has ever known. And he said he could see it from the very first. Rufus knew as soon as he had given William the position that he would take to it as a duck takes to water. And he works very well with Henry.”
“I am sure that he is a great help to Henry, the old dear.” Lady Brightwell smiled. “But when is that dear gent going to retire? He looks almost as old as Hillington Hall itself.”
“Rufus has tried to furnish him with a great pension more than once, but Henry seems determined to keep working. I think he still suffers a great deal of guilt, even all these years later.”
“When a good man falls, he falls very hard indeed. But I am glad that Rufus chose to forgive him for his little betrayal all those years ago. He is just like his father in that regard, most understanding and sympathetic.”
“Yes, and I count myself very lucky to have such a fine husband.”
“As he must count himself lucky to have such a fine wife,” Lady Brightwell said with a bright smile. “I never tire of hearing how he climbed out upon that ledge so high above the ground to have you climb out of the window. Really, to date, it is still the most exciting tale I have ever heard.”
“Dandridge Hall seems like such a long time ago now. It is almost as if it never existed, and yet I remember every twist and turn of its dark corridors and its dreadful atmosphere.”
“There is gossip abroad that things do not go well there this last year since Lady Patience and Lady Georgiana were married away,” Lady Brightwell spoke cautiously, tentatively.
“Well, I am sure that it is no surprise to me,” Ella said and feigned indifference.
“But are you not curious to hear the gossip?”
“I have no doubt that my mother is not at all happy in her position. But you see, my dear Constance, my mother has never been happy in any position. She is truly the most dissatisfied creature on God’s earth, and if she is low in spirits, it is because she always is. Her expectations were always so very high, you see, most unattainable in their extravagance.”
“I do not think it simply a case of her own poor humour, my dear,” Lady Brightwell said quietly. “But rather a case of the Earl of Dandridge’s inherent cruelty. It was long known how dreadfully he treated his first wife.”
“Yes, and it was well known to my mother before she married him. I cannot tell you how I begged and begged her not to do it. She was well provided for, and we would both have been quite content at Longton Manor.”
“But seen in the right light, my dear, you would not be where you are today had your mother not chosen to marry the Earl.” Lady Brightwell was still cautious. “For you would never have met Rufus, and he would never have had cause to save you and fall in love with you. Everything happens for a reason, even the terrible things sometimes.”
“Yes, there is much in what you say, Constance,” Ella said quietly, keen not to hurt her dear friend’s feelings.
And it was true that Ella’s anger at her mother had lessened in the five years since she had last seen her. She remembered well their final conversation and how she had told her mother that she would leave that place and never see her again. She remembered well how she had told Ariadne Belville that she had made a grave mistake, and she would live a miserable life and come to regret her treatment of her only daughter.
And she had no doubt that everything she had said to her mother in that final conversation had come to pass. But perhaps it had come to pass with more pain and anguish than she had ever imagined.
“Violet, for heaven’s sake, I have never seen a young lady look so heavy with child,” Ella said and laughed as she untied the ribbons of her bonnet. “No, do not stand up. And I have asked Jenny to bring us some tea, so you need not worry about that either. You must rest, my dear, for I remember well how exhausting this phase of it all is.”
“Ella, I cannot believe how tired I am,” Violet said and patted the seat on the couch so that her friend and one-time mistress might sit next to her.
From the moment that Violet and William had come to work on the Hillington estate, leaving Dandridge far behind them, Violet had been much more of a friend and companion to Ella than her intended position of lady’s maid.
For the most part, Ella simply got herself ready as Violet sat on the little stool by the dressing table and chattered happily. Ever since Violet had put herself at risk in seeking to have her rescued, Ella had not been able to treat her as anything other than a friend; an equal.
And when Rufus had made William the Duchy overseer, shortly after William and Violet had married three years before, Ella had been delighted.
The newlyweds had been installed in the Lodge on the grounds of the estate, as was proper for a Duchy overseer and his wife. But Violet had made her way over to the hall every morning, keen to spend as much of every day with Ella as possible, especially when Phoebe was first born.
“But you will know when you are getting closer, my dear, for you will find a most unusual spurt of energy overtakes you.”
“Yes, I remember well how you used to tear about Hillington Hall in the fortnight before Phoebe was born. Well, at least I will know what to expect.” Violet laughed.
Jenny, the maid at William and Violet’s Lodge, made her way in with a fully laden tea tray. There was not only tea but a great plate of very pretty looking cakes.
“I say, Jenny, did you make these?” Ella said as she peered at the cakes hungrily.
“Yes, Your Grace,” Jenny replied and curtsied.
“They look wonderful,” Ella said enthusiastically. “What a clever girl you are.”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Jenny answered and curtsied again before turning to leave the two women.
“I might take a little cake first before I pour the tea,” Ella said and quickly reached for one of them.
“I will pour the tea,” Violet objected.
“No, you will stay right where you are and rest,” Ella said in her bossiest tone. “And tell me what news you have, for you always have news.”
“I am afraid that I do have news, Ella,” Violet said in a voice that made Ella instantly concerned.
“Mrs Wesley came to visit me a few days ago, you remember? She is the housekeeper at Dandridge.”
“Good heavens, I had no idea that you and Mrs Wesley were friends. As I remember it, she was always something of a tyrant as far as you were concerned.”
“Indeed, she was, Ella. Many was the day I hid from that woman, I can tell you.”
“And yet she has come to visit you here?”
“Yes, and she does not seem at all frightening anymore.” Violet laughed. “In fact, she seemed more frightened than frightening.”
“I will not dance about the issue, Ella, I will just tell you straight. Mrs Wesley came to see me with the sole purpose of telling me how badly things go at Dandridge Hall. She says that your mother suffers a good deal, and I think she is afraid for her. I know there is something that she was not telling me, but I could see the old fear in her eyes. As with all the servants at Dandridge, she still does not know who she can and cannot trust. But I do think that something horrible must have happened there for her to come to me in such a state.”
“But she would not say what it was?”
“No, only that your mother suffers, and has suffered more and more since the Earl’s daughters were married away.”
“I must admit that Lady Brightwell has told me something similar, some other piece of gossip that she has heard, so I can only believe it is true. And it is easy to believe, is it not?”
“I hope that I have not distressed you by telling you, but I could not keep it to myself.”
“I know, Violet, and I would not have expected you to keep it to yourself,” she said and patted Violet’s hand. “Now, let me pour this tea.”
Ella had kept the conversation light from that moment onwards, not wanting to distress her pregnant friend any more than she seemed to be already.
But when she returned home later that day, she quickly sought Rufus out. She told him what Lady Brightwell had told her and then she told him of the visitor to Violet at the Lodge.
“I think it is a tale that can easily be believed,” Rufus said and rose from his seat in the drawing room to sit next to his wife on the couch and pull her into his arms. “And I think that we must surely do something about it.”
“You know how my mother treated me, Rufus.”
“I do, and I shall never forgive her for it.” He kissed the top of her head. “But I do not want you to find yourself in a position of not being able to forgive yourself for the rest of your life if you do not at least try to help.”
“I do not see how I can help,” Ella said and shrugged.
“We must get her out of there,” Rufus said as if it were the simplest thing in the world.
“The Earl is her husband, and he will not let her go. And there is nothing that you or I can do to make him, nothing at all. The law is on his side, however appalling a human being he is.”
“Then he should put her out to live at Longton Manor, surely? It is not uncommon for husbands and wives who do not get on to live in separate houses. Especially if he cannot bear to be in her company. Has Longton Manor not been empty since you and your mother left all those years ago?”
“Not only is it empty, but it is dreadfully overgrown. It is a most sorry looking place these days,” Ella said sadly. “But he will never agree to it, Rufus. Even if you begged him to let her live there, he would refuse it simply as a way of getting back at you.”
“Let me think about it, my dear.” Rufus kissed her again. “Let me put my mind to it, and perhaps I might find myself as clever as Violet and be able to come up with a real plan.”
“Thank you, my darling.”
The Countess of Dandridge sat in the chair by the window in her chamber and stared mournfully out at the immaculate and immense lawns of the grounds of her husband’s great estate.
How impressed she had been with it all when she had first seen it. When the Earl of Dandridge, so keen to court her, had led her by the hand around the lawns and the rose gardens, how well she had seen herself as mistress of that estate.
What a far cry from the young and frightened governess, desperate and humiliated by her father’s fall from grace and loss of wealth, alone in a house of strangers who treated her almost as if she were one of the servants.
The feeling of her reduced circumstances had never left her, even when Winston Winfield had fallen in love with her and proposed marriage, turning her from governess to Baroness in the blink of an eye. Oh, and how he had loved her.
If only his love had been enough to overcome the fear. If only his small estate at Longton had been a little better kept, a little less wild, then she might have settled down more than she had.
As every day passed, Ariadne Winfield had feared that her husband’s casual approach to life and aristocracy would render him one day as low and as ruined as her father had been. And then what would become of her?
And on the day that he had died, that fear had not released her. She knew that she had Longton and that she and young Ella would have managed. But what if something happened? What if it was not enough?
She had beseeched Winston to find a suitable man, a man of standing, a man of title, to marry Ella. At least then Ariadne would have been safe, whatever would have happened.
If her husband had listened to her and married Ella away to an Earl or even just a Baron of better standing than Winston, Ariadne might have been able to settle. But still, the fear hung all around her.
And so it was that when Ronald Belville, the Earl of Dandridge, began to pay his addresses long before her period of mourning was up, Ariadne decided that she would not turn him away.
He was not an attractive man to her, not handsome in his manners or appearance, but he was the most wealthy and powerful man to ever have looked her way and, as far as Ariadne was concerned, that meant more to her than love and attraction ever would. Safety was everything.
And how long it had taken her to realize that she was not safe.
Ella had begged her, over and over again, to keep to Longton Manor and away from the Earl whose reputation was so very poor.
But Ariadne had not listened. To Ariadne, the Earl represented wealth, status, and position. He represented everything that she wanted, and she would have it, come what may.
In the five years since Ella had escaped from Dandridge Hall, Ronald had become increasingly aggressive towards Ariadne. At least, in the beginning, he had found her so attractive that she could use her wiles upon him. But as time had gone on, he had tired of her, just as Ella had told her he would.
Everything that Ella had said in that last dreadful conversation had come to pass. And she could never have realized at the time just how forcefully it would occur.
Ronald had blamed her for Ella’s escape, insanely suspecting her of having a hand in it. And he had blamed her that her brazen daughter, as he called her, had eloped to Scotland and married the Duke who ought really to have married one of his own daughters.
But Ella had been right, a man as calm and as cultured as the Duke of Hillington would never have married one of the Earl of Dandridge’s brats.
And their behaviour had deteriorated the moment they realized that neither one of them would be a Duchess. Not only that, but they too blamed their stepmother. After all, it was her own awful offspring who had ruined everything.
In the last five years, Ariadne had had much time to contemplate her mistakes. She had been forced to look deep within herself, to find the reasons why she had behaved so very badly.
Such introspection was painful, and yet, as every lonely day went by, and she was forced to keep to her own chamber to take her meals, she realized with awful clarity exactly how it was her only daughter must have felt. As awful as the company would have been, the forced solitude was worse.
And she had done that to her own daughter.
She had made things worse for her, had stood by when that brute of a husband had beaten her and imprisoned her, and yet still she had thought of nothing but herself. Still, she had worried how her daughter’s behaviour would affect Ariadne herself.
In fact, it was not until her husband had beaten her for the very first time that she began to realize what a truly dreadful thing she had allowed to happen to her daughter.
And years of injury and fear and solitude had forced Ariadne to face the one thing she had always been afraid to look at; her own frightened, selfish character.
“I knew you would get a spurt of energy, Violet! Did I not say that you would?” Ella said and laughed as she handed Violet a plate of the sandwiches that she could not reach over her own swollen belly. “I can hardly believe that you have walked all the way here this morning from the Lodge!”
“It is but five minutes, Ella.” Violet laughed as she took the plate. “But I must say, it has made me extremely hungry.” She immediately tucked into the sandwiches.
“I thought I might find the two of you in here,” Rufus said as he strode into the drawing room at Hillington Hall. “I thought I could hear raucous feminine laughter.”
“There is nothing raucous about us, Rufus,” Ella said and laughed. “And if you want tea, you will have to send down for another cup and saucer.”
“No, I do not want tea,” he said, settling himself down in his favourite armchair. “But I will take one of these little sandwiches, if I may,” he said, helping himself.
“I must say, you look extraordinarily pleased with yourself, husband,” Ella said suspiciously. “Tell me, what is the cause?”
“You read me like a book, Ella.” He laughed and turned to Violet. “Really, I can get away with nothing. I have only to squint my eyes and my wife knows what I am thinking.”
“Rufus!” Ella said in mock exasperation. “Whatever it is, say it. I know that you have come in here and disrupted us to part with some information or other.”
“How right you are,” Rufus said and quickly finished his sandwich. “And I do have something to tell you.”
“So?” Ella went on impatiently.
“I have tracked down Snaresbrook,” Rufus said triumphantly.
“What is Snaresbrook?” Ella said quizzically.
“Not what, who.” Rufus grinned. “Do you really not remember that name?”
“No, I do not,” Ella said and shook her head.
“I do,” Violet said and did what she could to sit up straighter. “Remember, Ella? The Earl told Mr Mercer that day that he wished he had not employed Snaresbrook to waylay His Grace on his way to Mortcombe Hall. Remember? He wished he had used Proctor instead because Proctor was much more rotten.”
“Good heavens, yes, of course,” Ella said and felt a little uneasy. Surely this had something to do with her mother and her plight. “But where on earth did you find the man?”
“In a tavern, counting out his last pennies in the world for a drink.”
“Oh dear, he is a drunkard then?”
“A very determined one.” Rufus laughed. “But that seemed to work in my favour.”
“Because it was a very easy thing for me to persuade him to sign a little statement as to what had happened all those years ago. For the sake of another drink, old Snaresbrook was prepared to admit that the Earl of Dandridge had employed him to perform a staged robbery on the Duke of Hillington, no less.”
“But what will you do with this statement?” Ella said with grave concern. “If you take it to a magistrate, my dear Rufus, then will you not be putting poor old Henry in a dreadful position?”
“No, because Snaresbrook knows nothing of Henry Mercer at all. The Earl approached him on his own and paid him handsomely. There was never any mention of Henry Mercer.”
“But really, what if the Earl tells the magistrate about Henry’s involvement?”
“Firstly, the whole thing was Henry’s idea.” Rufus shrugged. “Since I seemed to be unable to come up with a clever plan of my own.” He laughed. “And secondly, I do not intend to take this statement to a magistrate. I intend to take it straight to the Earl of Dandridge himself and threaten that I will take it to a magistrate.”
“I see, so you mean to tell him to install my mother at Longton Manor and leave her alone or you will go to a magistrate with what you know?”
“That is precisely it, my dear.”
“But what if he dares you to go ahead?”
“If he dares me to go ahead, there will be little point in me doing so. It will be clear that he will not let your mother go, even at the price of his own reputation. But I know men like Dandridge; I know their egos and their pretense at scandal-free lives. I will take William with me, and we will put a good deal of pressure to bear on that rotten man.”
“Yes, William will be very persuasive,” Violet said and seemed entirely unconcerned that her husband would be involved. “And I am sure that he would relish the idea to put the frighteners on his old master. The Earl was rotten to all of his staff, William included.”
“Yes, William has already said as much himself.” Rufus laughed. “And I must admit to being greatly relieved that he has agreed to join me in my endeavour.”
“And you are sure that Henry does not mind? And you are sure that you will do nothing to put Henry’s reputation in jeopardy?”
“You must stop worrying about Henry, Ella. He is a dear friend, and I would never do anything to hurt him.”
“Because, as worried as I am about my mother, I know Henry Mercer to be a better person. If it comes to it, and one of them is to be saved, then let it be Henry.”
“I will,” Rufus said quietly. “And I know what it costs you to say such a thing.”
As Ella approached the rusting iron gates of Longton Manor, her mouth went dry. She had insisted upon making the journey alone, even when Violet, a brand-new mother, had insisted on going with her.
And Rufus, ever her friend as well as her husband, had acceded to her wishes, keeping himself in the carriage just outside the tiny Longton estate.
Ella walked slowly along the gravel driveway, setting foot on her old family estate for the first time in years. She had seen it vaguely now and again, from a little distance, unable to stop herself peering in its direction whenever she passed. But she had never walked on that ground from the day that her mother had married the Earl of Dandridge. It no longer belonged to her and her dear father, but to that dreadful, evil man.
Ella had always liked the wildness of the grounds, the little shrubs that had sprouted here and there and the great climbing, clambering roses and rhododendrons. But everywhere was overgrown now, and she could hardly recognize the magical wilderness that had once existed. Instead, she could just see dereliction.
By the time she reached the front door, Mrs Wesley, the old housekeeper at Dandridge Hall, was standing at the top of the steps.
“Mrs Wesley, you are here?”
“I have attended the Countess these last years, Your Grace, and my master decided that he could very easily do without me at the hall.”
“Then I can only say that I am very pleased for you, my dear, for the hall at Dandridge must have been a most uncomfortable place these last years.”
“Indeed, it was, Your Grace. And forgive me, but I am waiting here for you so that I might warn you beforehand that your mother is greatly changed since you last saw her.”
“I suppose I had expected it, for five years have passed.”
“Five very hard years, your Grace,” Mrs Wesley said significantly.
When Ella walked alone into the drawing room, it was to see her mother standing looking out of one the windows, her back to her daughter.
“Mama?” Ella said gently and slowly, very slowly, the Countess of Dandridge turned to face her.
Ella almost gasped, her mother seemed to have aged twenty years since she had last seen her. There were deep lines on her face and her hair, although neat, had become very faded and grey.
“Ella, I did not think that you would come,” she said in a voice that was a shadow of its former self.
Ariadne Belville began to walk towards her daughter, limping very badly. Ella looked down and realized that her mother had a stick, a very simple walking stick, and she leaned heavily upon it.
“What did he do?” Ella said, not taking her eyes from her mother as she slowly lowered herself into the old armchair that had once been Baron Winfield’s favourite.
“You were right, my dear. The Earl of Dandridge found it very easy to throw me down the stairs, just as he had promised to do to you. I now see that he was not lying, not issuing empty threats.”
“Oh, my goodness, he threw you down the stairs? He meant to kill you?”
“Yes, and he was most distressed to find that I had not died.”
“Mama, I am so very sorry.” Ella, overcome with emotions she had not expected to feel, dashed across the drawing room and dropped to her knees in front of her mother, laying her head on her mother’s lap.
“You have nothing to be sorry for, my dear child. I have had five long years to think about everything that you said to me, every piece of advice you gave me, and every heart filled plea you made, and I have come to know myself for the monster that I was.” Ariadne gently patted her daughter’s gleaming dark hair. “And it is I who am sorry, Ella. I am sorry that we ever left this place, this wonderful home of ours. I am sorry that I never saw Longton Manor for what it was and your father for the fine man he truly always had been.”
“No, I am sorry for what I said that day. That last day at Dandridge,” Ella said as tears rolled down her face. “I should never have said that you were condemned to a miserable life and that you deserved it. Nobody deserves what you have been through, Mama. And so, I do need to seek your forgiveness.”
“You do not, but you shall have it if it makes you feel better,” Ariadne said as her voice too cracked with emotion.
“I still miss Papa,” Ella said miserably.
“You may not believe me, but I have come to miss him too. I have come to see what I failed to see for so many years. But one day, I will explain it all out to you. Not so that you will feel sorry for me or forgive me the dreadful things that I did. But just so that you will understand; you will have the explanation that you have deserved for many long years.”
“There is more than enough time for that, Mama,” Ella said and sat back on her haunches, finally drying her tears with a handkerchief. “But first we must start to get to know one another again.”
“I think we must get to know one another for the first time, Ella, do you not?” Ariadne smiled at her with serenity and warmth that Ella had never seen before.
Something had changed in her mother, something very vital and profound. It was as if she was speaking to the mother she had always wished for.
“I am certainly willing to try. I promise you that I will be no stranger to Longton Manor in the coming years. And neither will my daughter, your granddaughter. As soon as you and I have solved every difference between us, you will come to know Phoebe too.”
“I had never thought that I would be free from Dandridge Hall, and I do not know where to begin thanking you and your husband. But I will find a way to make things right, my dear girl; I hope you will believe me.”
“Of course, I believe you,” Ella said and took Ariadne’s hands in her own. “You are my mother, after all.”
Don’t miss my Amazon Best-Selling novel “For the Love of a Duchess” with over 200 positive reviews and an average rating of 4.6 out of 5 stars! Check it out here!
Lady Eliza Ashton, daughter of the Earl of Bexley, had always thought her life would be a straight pathway to happiness.
Engaged to be married to the devastatingly handsome Miles Gainsborough, Eliza could never have imagined how easily happiness could turn into disaster. When her father tells her that she is the only hope of saving the family from financial ruin, she finds herself set to marry the Duke of Lytton instead.
Daniel Winchester, an accomplished and successful attorney, finds his simple existence at Lytton Hall turned upside down by the arrival of the Duke’s new young bride. Determined to think her a young title-hunter, he is surprised to find himself drawn to her as every day passes. When the old Duke dies, his ego bruised by the realization that the beautiful young woman will never love him, becomes increasingly aggressive, Daniel is the only man with courage enough to defend her.
But when the old Duke dies, will Eliza allow the threat of scandal and the fear of condemnation to turn her away from the only man she has ever truly loved? And will Daniel Winchester ever find a pathway leading to the heart of the young woman who occupies his every thought?
“For the Love of a Duchess” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.