The French countryside was cloaked in a blessed darkness as a small horse-trap raced along a lonely road towards the coastal village in the distance. It was the dark that gave the two people in the trap a shred of comfort—theirs was not the sort of business that liked the light. Ahead, though not yet visible, was a carriage of particular interest to the two cloaked strangers, and the smallest of the two kept straining through the darkness for any sight or sound of those ahead.
A closer look at the trap showed the driver, a middle-aged man with pale hair and a strong jaw. His eyes were flashing, catching the moonlight and seeming to hurl it forward onto the road before them; he was intent on the task at hand, and only looked to the side on occasion to check the welfare of his passenger.
“Helene,” he whispered now into the darkness. “It is alright. You can rest now, we’re nearly there.”
She raised her head from beneath the cloak, and the sight of her delicate features framed by dark curls stopped his heart as it had since before they were wed. She put her slender hand on his arm. “I cannot rest until I have my baby in my hands again,” she said. “We never should have let them go on ahead.”
“It was the only way, my love. They might have suspected us at the gates if they’d seen you with all your belongings. The guillotine is not a one to let her victims go.”
A familiar look of icy fear played with Helene’s features, and she put a hand to her throat. “What was my crime, William? What was yours?”
“You are an aristocrat,” he answered simply, turning his attention back to the team and the swiftly passing countryside. “Your crime is one of birth, and as I am the Englishman who married you, I assume your crimes by connection.”
“I’m sorry, my love.”
“Hush. We will be over the channel soon.”
Up ahead, the carriage that so occupied the mother’s thoughts had already reached the coastal village. These days, even the quiet country streets were crawling with informants for the bloody Republic, and the coachman slowed to a quiet trot to avoid drawing villagers to their windows late at night.
Inside the carriage, a baby stirred in the arms of her thin nanny, and a pale little maid sat across from them both, twisting her handkerchief and staring out the window.
“They ought to be here by now,” she said at last. “They weren’t supposed to ride too far behind.”
“Perhaps they got held up.” The nanny put the edge of her knuckle in the child’s mouth, and the wee babe opened her pale eyes. “You know the gates are getting harder to pass each day. They’ll be along, they will.”
“Aye, but we’ve strict orders to cross the channel at three hours after the strike of midnight, and that’s only an hour away now. If they don’t come, we will be forced to abandon them.”
“If they don’t come with a three-hour difference to account for,” the nanny said grimly, “then we must assume there is no one left to abandon. It’s the child we’re responsible for now, love. The Republic doesn’t treat the bairns of the aristocrats any differently than the crown itself.”
“Brutes,” the maid hissed. It was a dangerous thing to turn one’s nose against the mob, even in the quiet safety of the carriage, but the nanny smiled, and the maid wondered if the older woman approved of her bravery despite the danger.
The carriage stopped at last, and the maid climbed out first, taking the baby from the nurse and then walking to the edge of the water. There was a craft there, a small ship anchored off shore, but easily sturdy enough to make the journey across to England and freedom. The crew was small—only a captain and passel of scrawny sailors, and they were all silent as ghosts. It was a dangerous thing they were doing, aiding France’s disgraced nobles, but the maid knew they were being paid handsomely by Lord Hendley and his pretty little French wife, and if their nerve held for just a small time more, they would be clear of France and the blood on her hands.
“We have arrived,” the maid said to the captain. “Please, have your sailors load our trunks from the carriage onto the rowboat and take them out to the ship. Then return for us and the baby.”
“We were sent here for a simple person-by-person retrieval,” the captain said. “We heard nothing of the transport of goods. You should be happy enough to escape with your life.”
“We are here an hour before the time set to sail,” the maid said, swallowing her fear and standing up to the brute. “You have plenty of time to transport the trunks, and I’m sure my Lord will pay extra for the kindness.”
The captain seemed to fight with his conscience, but in the end he gave in. The maid thought she could see a glint of money reflected in his eyes. As the sailors began to grudgingly load the trunks aboard the rowboat, the captain nodded at the baby in the nanny’s arms.
“It’s dangerous to take a baby on an escape mission.”
The nanny said nothing, and the captain kept speaking, looking as though the woman’s silence was making him uncomfortable.
“What is her name?”
“Fleur,” the maid said, seconds before receiving a sharp glance of reproof from the nanny.
The captain wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Isn’t that French for ‘flower?’”
The nanny, who was French herself, lifted her chin in a haughty manner. “It is the proper way to say the word, yes.”
“Surely Lord and Lady Hendley can’t expect to raise a child in England with a name that so reeks of this godforsaken country,” the captain said, pulling out a thin toothpick of wood and drawing it languidly across his teeth. “They ought to change it to a good English name that isn’t polluted by violence.”
“Oh, like Bloody Mary Tudor, or Queen Anne, who has a war to her name?” The nanny stared down the captain. “Oh yes, our little flower is certainly the most violent of them all.”
“At least we don’t have actual blood running through our gutters,” the captain spat. He peered back towards the village. “Time’s running out, anyway. We set sail soon, and if your master and mistress aren’t here, we will be forced to leave them behind.”
“The Lord and his Lady should be on their way at once,” the maid said.
She turned and looked back up the road through the still-sleeping town, but there was no sound of hoof beats to comfort her fears.
The road curved sharply through a cove of trees and grew suddenly rocky, as though during flood season it was a direct conduit for rising waters. William Hendley slowed the trap and took it carefully down the uneven ground. Helene reached to the side and curled her fingers around the edge to support herself.
“We’re running out of time,” she said softly.
William put both reins in one hand and pulled his watch from a chain in his pocket. “We have under an hour before they set sail,” he reassured her, “and I know for a fact we’re but a ten-minute ride from the village. Have hope, my love.”
Just then, as the slowing of the trap allowed him to hear more clearly, William caught the first hints of movement in the underbrush on either side of their carriage.
“Whoa, there,” he clucked to the horses. They came to a stop, and William reached for the dagger at his waist.
“Is it an animal?” Helene asked, peering into the darkness. Suddenly, the very thing that had sped their passage towards freedom now seemed a sinister creature lurking in the shadows.
“I don’t know,” William said. Then, in a clear voice, he called out, “Who is there?”
After a few beats of silence, he had all but decided his fears were groundless when suddenly a dark, cloaked figure stepped out of the trees. It was a man, certainly, from his size and voice, but no features were visible. His face was swaddled, and he wore a long cloak and a dark hat. As he stepped forward, William saw five other figures emerge from the trees on either side and surround the carriage.
“Who are you?” he cried.
The leader took hold of the horse reins and gave a dull sort of chuckle. “Your wife is afraid of animals lurking in these woods; beasts.”
“Your accent is English,” Helene cried out. “Do we know you? What are you doing?”
“English or not,” the leader said, drawing closer to the two huddled in the carriage, “we are doing the work of France tonight, apprehending political prisoners who need to face justice.”
He was almost towards the box of the trap, and William thought for the first time that there was something familiar about the man’s movements; his voice. He thought about his knife but didn’t want to make the first move and give his weapon away. He would fight, to his last breath, to keep his wife from harm, but he was a shrewd man and new better than to incite a beast.
“What payment would be required to have you and your ruffians disappear into the night?”
“And that is just what we came about … payment.”
William shivered. “What is required?”
The man leaned very close, then, and spoke so low Helene and William wouldn’t have heard if they hadn’t been straining for his every word. “All is required.”
In a flash, he reached out, not for William, but for Helene. She didn’t even have time to struggle, and the masked man had dragged her from the carriage and onto the ground. She cried out as she landed, the air knocked out of her. William leapt to his feet and brandished his knife, clashing with the stranger who met him blade for blade.
The five other men swarmed the carriage, a few pinning William’s arms behind his back while the others searched the trap, violently tossing possessions onto the ground. Helene seemed to come back to herself and flew at the masked stranger from behind. William watched it all in slow motion, the attack of his tiny, fragile little wife, the spinning form of the menace at their side, and the flash of the knife as it was buried in Helene’s chest. She stumbled backwards, choking, and then fell lifeless to the ground.
William cried out, and full of fury and grief, pulled free from his captors and charged the murderer. The man in the mask spun, stabbing William twice in the stomach and letting his body fall beside his wife’s.
William lay, his hand feeling the silk of Helen’s blood-soaked gown, his vision dimming, and he heard the men gathered around the carriage rifling through his belongings. One cried, “Where is it?”
And then all faded forever into darkness.
“It’s time,” the captain said. “We’re already half an hour over, and I’ll wait no longer. If you will come, it will be now.”
The maid was weeping, staring back up the dark road. “No! I can hear a carriage, sir, pulling through town. It’s near at hand.”
“We’ve waited long enough,” the captain hissed gruffly, but in the end, he allowed the maid to run towards the small horse-trap that came into sight just across the road at the edge of the village. It had no driver, and the team was sweaty and disoriented.
The maid ran up to the carriage. “It’s theirs!” she cried, catching hold of the horses.
“Where are they?” the nanny asked softly.
The maid peered into the back, and only the threat of the villagers waking kept her from screaming aloud. There, lying atop a collection of rags, were the bodies of her former Lord and Lady. They were pale, staring sightless into the clouds, and pinned to William Hendley’s chest was a notice that read, “You cannot flee the Reign of Terror.”
The maid stumbled back, her eyes falling on the road. In the distance, there was a commotion.
“We’ve no time,” she sobbed.
The captain nodded once, turned the women from the grisly sight, and ushered them both into the rowboat. As they pushed away from shore towards the safety of the ship and England, the child’s thin wail rose for the first time into the black, empty night.
“Flora, will you sing me a tune?” The boy jumped up beside his friend and cousin, looking up at her with all the innocent expectancy his ten years allowed.
Flora looked back down at him with a smile, warmed by his energy. Nearly nineteen, she was a woman now, but still the old girlish love of music and romance flirted on occasion with her more sensible side. She had been practicing scales at the pianoforte, running the familiar exercises with her gaze fixed somewhere far away out of the proper sitting room and her fingers going about their business as though of their own accord.
When Tom came, as he always did, to her side, she felt his free companionship like the gift it was.
“Name a tune and I will play it,” she said.
“I haven’t a one in mind,” he said, “but I could do with something a bit sorrowful.”
“Sorrowful?” she asked, showering him with one of her ready smiles. “And why would that be? What does a healthy, happy lad like yourself have to regret?”
“Sadness is good for the soul,” Tom said with a face too old for his few years.
“Alright then.” In truth, Flora’s mind had been elsewhere. Her birthday, which would come on the morrow, was always a double-edged sword for her. Everyone wanted to celebrate, but Flora always felt her parents’ absence most on days like this, when she was coming of age and going through all the motions that ought to have been accompanied by the encouragement of a father and a mother.
She ran her fingers along the ivory keys, coaxing a simple and plaintive tune out of the instrument.
“A sailor’s life, it is a merry life,” she began, her voice rising as it always did in a silvery thread. She moved through the song easily, keeping the slow and steady build of sadness as she spun the tale. “My true love he makes the finest show. He’s proper tall, genteel and all, and if I don’t have him, I’ll have none at all.”
She could feel Tom next to her, listening with his head cocked to the side and his legs swinging beneath the bench. He had the heart of a poet, she was sure, though even as a boy he was already being fashioned into a soldier and a gentleman by his mother, Flora’s Aunt Beatrice.
“They had not sailed on the deep, when a Queen’s ship they chanced to meet ‘you sailors all, pray tell me true, does my sweet William sail among your crew?’”
Flora played an interlude and was prepared to embark on the truly devastating part of the story when suddenly a pale hand appeared and pulled the lid of the piano down, almost shutting it on her fingers if she hadn’t pulled them away just in time.
It was Aunt Beatrice, bending over the two with a frown wrinkling her brow. She was an imposing woman even when she wasn’t angry, naturally pale-skinned with dark hair and a pointed nose. Flora had seen one painting of her father, Aunt Beatrice’s older brother, and she’d been struck by the difference between the two—her father was fair while Beatrice was dark-haired, he had laughing eyes while hers seemed always urgent, and he carried himself like a prince while Beatrice seemed always to have the attempts at finery that seemed better fitting a poor and insecure woman.
“Yes, Aunt?” Flora looked up with measured patience in her voice. She had learned long ago that her aunt’s desires were better met with little disagreement.
“That’s a shocking, crude tale.”
“Why?” Tom asked, his eyes wide.
Aunt Beatrice lowered her voice. “The sailor dies,” she said softly. “And the girl … she does herself in, if you know what I mean. It’s very indecent, and completely unrealistic.”
Flora hid a smile. “Aunt, people have been known to die for love. It’s not out of the purview of possibility.”
“But it is not to be encouraged.” Flora’s aunt softened her voice somewhat and laid a hand on Flora’s slender shoulder. “I know you’ve French blood in you, love, but you mustn’t give in to those sensibilities that encourage drama and tears. Embrace stoicism and polite society.”
Flora bit her lip, and stood as graciously as she could from the piano seat. “Are you going out, Aunt?” She nodded at her aunt’s riding habit.
“I just returned, actually. I’m going to rest in my room but,” she paused, looking uncharacteristically uncertain of herself, “when I return, perhaps we could speak for a bit? I’ve a matter of some importance to discuss.”
“Of course, Aunt,” Flora said, curtsying to accompany her aunt’s departure from the room.
When his mother had gone, Tom brightened. “Another song?”
“No, I wouldn’t want to upset your mama again. But perhaps a game of spillikins in the kitchen?” Flora tried to push the thought of loss aside and focus instead on all that she had been given. She had been left an orphan after her parents died mysteriously when she was a baby, but she had not been left alone in the world. She had Beatrice, and later Tom. She had a fine house, and the next day’s party would see her of age to inherit at last the great fortune that Lord William Hendley had left for his only child.
“Spillikins,” Tom said cheerfully, “if you whip up some biscuits while you’re at it.”
Flora tried not to smile but failed. “You know full well that your mother likes the servants to do the work in the kitchen.”
“But they’re so fine when you spice them,” Tom said with a charming raise of his little eyebrow. “And you promised to make some for the poor in town.”
“I meant that for later this week. If I make them now you will gobble them up before I can distribute them properly.”
“Not this time,” Tom answered back with a raised eyebrow. “This time I will wait until all the hungry children have eaten their fill.”
“Alright then,” she agreed with a toss of her hair. She took his hand, and they skipped to the quiet kitchen. The cook staff would be out for shopping until the evening, and by then the sweet biscuits would be well and truly out of the way.
Tom set himself up on the counter while Flora set out the flour and butter and sugar, mixing each in turn. She took some of the precious warm spices from their jars and sprinkled them atop the mixture, cutting it all together until it formed a soft ball.
She rolled out the floured dough and cut them into small circles. Stoking the fire, she slid the biscuits in far away from the flames and turned from the stove with her hands on her slender hips. “There. Are you satisfied?”
“I will be when I can eat my stomach full,” Tom said, pushing his stomach out into a ball and running his hand around like a woman with child.
“Have you so soon forgotten your pledge to the poor little children?” Flora asked with a wink.
Flora looked up at the sound of a cleared throat in the doorway, and her eyes fell on the maid, a small girl with an open, English face and plain brown hair.
“Mrs Tomlinson is here, My Lady. She wanted to drop off something for your aunt, who appears to be indisposed at present.”
“Yes, of course.” Flora tossed a warning look at Tom. “Don’t try to take those biscuits out—they’ll burn you for certain.”
He rolled his eyes in mock annoyance but seemed content to mess around with the leftover dough in silence. Flora paused at the mirror in the hall to brush off the smudge of flower clinging to her nose. She had always felt mousy as a child, smaller than all the other young people her age, with a soft voice and a shy manner. Her hair was the gold of her father’s, but her brilliant eyes and petite features bore all the French resemblance to her mother. Flora sighed and tucked a strand of loose hair behind her ear before appearing in the drawing room.
“Mrs Tomlinson. What a pleasure.”
The visitor arose, stretching her tall, lean height. She was dressed, as always, in dark and elegant silks. Her greying hair was pulled up high upon her head and atop it all she wore a rather garish riding cap.
“Oh, it’s you dear.” Her voice adopted the usual patronizing tilt. “Your aunt is unavailable.”
“I’m afraid she’s indisposed at present,” Flora said as kindly as possible. She had never liked Mrs Tomlinson, and technically her elevated standing as a Hendley in society should have allowed her the excuse she needed to treat the other woman with rudeness. Flora could never bring herself to shower the same disdain on Mrs Tomlinson that she received from the woman, however. There was a certain twinge in her conscience that overrode every attempt at haughty behaviour. “Can I help you?” she said at last.
The older woman cleared her throat and held out a small wrapped parcel. “It’s for her, although I wanted to see her unwrap it.”
“Well, perhaps you could come back tomorrow?”
“No, I haven’t the time or energy to be running about to places I’ve already been.” Mrs Tomlinson waved her hand dismissively. “No, go ahead and give it to her and afterwards have her send me a note with her thoughts.”
“May I enquire what’s inside?” Flora asked softly, her curiosity getting the better of her.
“You shouldn’t,” Mrs Tomlinson snapped. “You should really know better than to ask after things that are not your business. It’s not the way things are done here. You’ll learn soon enough.”
Flora stared at the woman in shocked amazement. She had been a proud English girl her entire life, and every memory she had as a child had been free of French influence. Still, with Napoleon raking the English lads across the coals, sentiment was more than usually opposed to the French these days. “When do you think I will have learned your ways?” she asked despite herself. “I’m a grown woman—tomorrow is my coming of age party.”
“Ah, yes. Everyone is wondering what Miss Hendley will do when she at last has her hands on her father’s English treasure.” Mrs Tomlinson avoided saying more, but Flora could hear her implication laced like poison in her tone. She, like many people, suspected that Helene’s French blood would one day rise in Flora and pull her sympathies away from England.
Flora wanted to snap back at the older woman; to show her the error of her ways. After all, it was not her mother’s gentle influence that made her doubt England—though she was a loyal citizen, the only time she resented the country she called home was when its citizens chose to demonstrate their virulent prejudice against her upbringing. “I am English, through and through,” she said softly.
“Oh, don’t take offence, darling,” Mrs Tomlinson said with a wave of her gloved wrist. “That’s very emotional of you.”
Flora watched her go with their conversation still stinging like salt in a wound. She bit her lip to keep back the tears that threatened at the surface. She was an English lady, after all, and a true English lass would not give a bully the benefit of tears. She stopped by the mirror before going back into the kitchen and put a thin hand to her pale cheek. She looked at herself in a distant manner, as though she were someone else.
“You mustn’t let them bother you,” she whispered. “You must think only of Mama and Papa.”
She smiled then, grotesquely forced in the looking glass, and the tears gathered in her eyes raced away somewhere secret and safe. Flora relaxed her expression and pushed open the door, her light smile falling on Tom; her movements graceful and regular.
“What did Mrs Tomlinson want?” the boy asked.
Flora pulled the biscuits out of the oven, tested the bottoms to ensure a good bake, and then flipped them out to cool. Tom reached forward and grabbed one between his fingers, tossing it back and forth to keep from burning himself.
“She had a gift for your mother, I don’t know what,” Flora said softly.
Tom narrowed his eyes, wiser than his ten years. “Did she say anything to make you feel small?” He had seen Flora’s heritage disparaged before.
“Of course not,” Flora answered with another strong attempt at a smile. “And besides, there’s no one that can make you feel small unless you choose to feel thusly.”
She tried to say it like she believed it.
Aunt Beatrice appeared just as Flora was packing away the last of the biscuits into the second of two baskets. She swept into the kitchen with a sleepy smile and sank into one of the chairs.
“I was looking for you both in the parlour—I hardly expected to find you here in the servants’ quarters.”
“I’m sorry, Aunt, but we had some preparations before taking the biscuits into town later.” Flora laid a cloth over the last basket and tucked it in around the corners. “Did you rest well?”
“Enough.” The older woman peered at Flora. “You know the cook can make all these little tidbits. I know you want to pour your energies into the poor and the wounded—”
“The war effort is important,” Flora said quickly. She hated that she felt so nervous whenever anyone spoke about the Napoleonic wars. “I want to help in any way that I can, and feeding those left behind is one of the best ways to provide aid.”
“But the servants can do the cooking.” Aunt Beatrice’s face took on a slightly strained expression. “And it’s not bad to tend to your own needs.”
“My needs?” Flora couldn’t help laughing. “I have no needs. I am the wealthy and titled daughter of a gentleman, on the verge of receiving my full inheritance. There is nothing for which I want, and nothing I fear financially. Shouldn’t I give back to the community in every way that I can?”
“Yes, and I’m sure the lower classes in Northampton are very thankful, but Whitney Hall deserves your attention as well.”
“And it has my attention,” Flora said gently. “You have done such a fine job of running the place in my stead, and I have tried to learn everything that you could teach. I just cannot be convinced that there is a need for me to save money and energy for myself when I see the widows of soldiers on the streets with their children; more every day.”
“Tom.” Aunt Beatrice’s voice was suddenly sharp. “Please run along. I have something I wish to share with Flora in private.”
Tom had been watching their entire exchange with sharp eyes. Instead of running off, he took the parcel Mrs Tomlinson had brought and laid it in his mother’s lap. “Mrs Tomlinson gave this to Flora earlier, Mama,” he said. “I think she was unkind.”
Flora blushed, a tinge that only deepened when she felt her aunt’s gaze hot on her face.
“What does he mean, dear?” Aunt Beatrice asked.
“Nothing,” Flora said hoarsely. “Only that my mother’s blood is more of a shame every passing day in the eyes of the villagers.” She bit her lip. “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have said as much. It was no matter.”
Aunt Beatrice said nothing, choosing instead to open the parcel and pull out the packet of thin muslin inside. “How kind of her,” she said softly. “I shall use this to edge my next gown.”
Tom’s face darkened with a sweet defence of his older cousin. “But it does matter, Mama,” he protested. “Flora’s as English as me, and this her homeland too. They’ve no right to be cruel to her, and you should speak to your friend about it.”
“You shouldn’t speak to me in such disrespect,” Aunt Beatrice snapped, looking up from the muslin at last. “I grow tired of your dramatic defense of your cousin. She’s a grown woman now, and able to rise to whatever prejudices the world throws her way. But you, my boy, need to learn to listen to me without argument. When I ask for time alone with Flora, I expect you to give it to me without delay.”
Tom swallowed hard and looked in Flora’s direction. She shrugged, trying to look light-hearted. There was no reason why such a kind boy should have to live with any of her worries on his shoulders. She reached into one of the baskets and freed a last biscuit to toss in his direction.
“Hurry along now,” she said cheerfully.
Tom caught it, smiled broadly again with the worry draining from his eyes, and ran off to the garden with his prize.
When he’d gone, Aunt Beatrice turned to her with an uncharacteristically soft tone. “He’s right, though. Lilian Tomlinson had no right.”
Flora was far more shocked by this show of kindness than she would have been if her aunt had brushed the insult under the table like she had most of Flora’s young life. “Thank you,” she said softly.
“Flora, would you walk with me into the library?” Aunt Beatrice stood and folded her hands in front of her. “I have a matter of some importance to discuss.”
Flora had seen her aunt uncomfortable before, but always that had been accompanied by one of the many things Beatrice disliked—hard work, societal disarray, the bad opinion of the upper classes—this conversation seemed different somehow. Flora could see that her aunt was worried about sharing something with her, but she couldn’t understand why. Beatrice had never been particularly shy or nervous about her own opinion, and more often than not Flora gave in to her every whim.
They walked together upstairs, and then down the long, tapestried hall towards the library. There, lying on the table, was a small book of common prayer and a pair of white silk gloves.
“They were your mother’s,” Aunt Beatrice said, a rare mist forming in her eyes. She picked the two objects up and placed them in Flora’s hands. “She would want you to have them. She used both on her own wedding day.”
Flora felt a jolt of understanding blossom into dread in her stomach. “Her wedding day?”
“Yes.” Aunt Beatrice forced a smile. “Isn’t it wonderful! I have found a worthy suitor for you who has agreed to marry you quite soon. He knows much of your character and admires your beauty above all else. You are to be wed in a matter of months.”
Flora blinked. She was not as surprised as she might have been by this announcement. After all, most of her friends were already in engagements, marriages, or attachments of some sort. As the daughter of a wealthy Hendley, she could hardly have imagined going long without a suitor at her door, but the suddenness and finality of the situation still took her by surprise.
“The timing is of some interest,” she said slowly. “Does this unnamed suitor of mine know that I am to receive the wealth of my father on my birthday tomorrow?” She tried to keep the cynicism out of her voice.
The older woman looked uncomfortable. “Flora, you cannot imagine that people are unaware of your lineage and all that is owing you. It is not something to hide—your title is an asset to your future, just as much as your pretty face.”
Flora was not one to fight back, and her desire to bring peace to her aunt’s face again conquered her fear. “Of course I am grateful that you have arranged something good for me, Aunt,” she said, lowering her head in submission, “but I am curious to know more. Who is this man? Have I met him, and is he kind?”
“You have met him,” her aunt said, “though I’m not sure if you are well acquainted. I would tell you his name in an instant, but he has asked that he gets the pleasure of introducing himself again and winning your hand. There is a social function where this will all come to be.”
Flora felt a shiver run up her arms and she hugged herself, the gloves and book of prayer still held tight in one of her hands. “Can you tell me nothing about him? Surely there was something that caught your eye and made you believe we would be a good match.”
“I will not lie to you, my dear,” Aunt Beatrice said with a smile, stepping nearer her niece. “He is a wealthy man, and well-respected. You would do well to marry such a one. You would never want for money again.”
“I don’t want for money now,” Flora said, swallowing hard.
“Don’t be insolent, girl,” Aunt Beatrice said. Her words were sharp, but her eyes were soft. Through all the time she’d spent parenting Flora, she had always mixed her firm and somewhat intractable ways with genuine care. It was the only reason Flora could trust her now. Flora softened her tone.
“I only mean that I am aware of my impending fortune and the inheritance that has been so long in the coming. I do not think I am in need of a particularly wealthy husband, although I am of course not going to argue with you if you truly think this is best. I would only have wished to meet the gentleman first.”
“I do think it is best.” Aunt Beatrice took a deep breath. “And as for your wealth, we must never make assumptions about the future. Just because you are a comfortable lass in a wealthy home … you may find that one day you are in need of a husband who can keep the estate going with his own wealth.”
Flora uncrossed her arms and ran her fingers along the soft stitching of the gloves. “My mother had a good match, didn’t she? My father was handsome and good, that’s what you always say.”
Beatrice stepped forward and put her hands on her niece’s arms with gentle tenderness. “He was the best of men. He was very kind to me, even though at times I gave him little reason. He was your grandfather’s favourite child, and I will admit that I was jealous of him for the fact. Still, when he came back with your mother, he caused quite the stir.”
Flora bit her lip. “You so rarely talk about them. My mother—did she bring shame on our family?”
“Because she was French?” Aunt Beatrice smiled and led Flora to a chair. “Allow me to speak frankly. Though I do not believe in indulging your sensibilities or emotions I will tell this once and for all so you don’t have to wonder about the facts surrounding your mother and father. They were good people, both of them. Your mother was a shock to our English system, that’s for sure, but she was beautiful beyond your imagining. You look much like her, Flora, though you have your father’s hair. She was kind and sweet and sang like an angel. When we found out what had happened to them both …”
“What did happen?” Flora asked earnestly. “No one has ever told me the truth.”
“That is because no one knows it.” Aunt Beatrice put a shaking hand to her head. “We know that they were killed, and there is some belief that it was by members of the Republic who chose to take matters of justice into their own hands. You know your mother was an aristocrat from a family that was little loved in Paris.”
“But you do not believe that?” Flora asked softly, searching her aunt’s face.
“I believe it is a thing of the past, and that is why I do not speak of it. There is nothing more to learn about it, nothing that would help anyone here in this life.”
Flora could see that her aunt had said all she meant to, and she dreaded pushing so hard as to close up this new fount of information before it had begun to flow. She looked back at the gloves and the book of prayer.
“Thank you for sharing what you have. It gives me more peace than you know. This gentleman,” she looked up with her heart fluttering like a trapped bird in her chest, “I will be able to meet him soon?”
“Very. I thank you for being so docile in this matter.” The older woman took a deep breath and resumed her usual brusque manner. “I’m sure you will see in time that this is what is best for you. It’s what’s best to keep the Hendley name and Whitley Hall alive.”
Flora nodded, keeping her own confidence. It would do no good to tell her aunt of her fear and trepidation at the idea of marrying a man she did not know. After all, she had grown up all her life knowing such an arrangement was possible. It was silly to cry over things that were simply the way of the world. Still, she couldn’t help wishing to meet this mysterious man sooner rather than later—perhaps on closer acquaintance he would not loom as dark and dangerous as he now did in her mind.
“The Mysterious Past of a Delicate Flower” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Flora Hendley was born in France, but she wishes she knew more about her family’s past. After her parents died under mysterious circumstances, her family’s once-honoured name became a subject of scorn in England. Things will soon change when on her nineteenth birthday she will discover a shocking truth about her inheritance… While word of a hidden fortune brings mysterious treasure-hunters out of the woodwork, there will be a dashing gentleman among them, capable of shaking her world. But will he be someone that she can trust, or just another person trying to take advantage of her?
Spencer Padgett is clever and ambitious. He is ready to do whatever is expected of him for the King and the Country, even if that means he will have to lie. But when it comes to meeting a fascinating young lady and recovering a fortune owed to the Crown, his thoughts will never be that clear again. Will he obey his common sense warning him to stay away from her? Or will he sacrifice his unshakable need for control in the name of the feelings he has started having for the first time in his life?
While Flora delves into a past that she wanted to keep hidden, Spencer has to face his emotions and harden his heart against the beautiful lady. Will the secrets revealed and the perplexing situation make them enemies? Or will they manage to put aside all of their doubts in the name of love?
“The Mysterious Past of a Delicate Flower” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.