War was hell. Letters from relatives could be worse.
The day had been full of musket balls and skirmishing.
Randall returned to his tent limping, dusty, and wanting to sleep for twelve hours.
Washing off the dust was easy. His highly competent batman, Gordon, had water waiting. Sleep was in shorter supply. Relief from his aching thigh was nonexistent.
Today Randall had lost one of his soldiers, a raw Irish recruit with an eager smile, which meant that a letter must be written to the boy’s family. It was the worst part of being an officer, but every life deserved recognition, and every family deserved to know how one of their own was lost.
“The post from England, sir.” Gordon handed Randall three sealed letters.
Randall thumbed through them. One from the Duke of Ashton. His old school friend was his best correspondent. Another from Kirkland, also a school friend and reliable. And the last…
He stared down at the arrogant signature that franked the letter. Daventry. The bane of his existence. Randall had been five when his parents died of fever. He’d been left in the guardianship of his uncle, the Earl of Daventry.
The years that followed were the worst of Randall’s life. He had been brought to the Daventry seat, Turville Park, and put in the nursery with the heir, nine-year-old Lord Branford. Large for his age and with an arrogance that would have been impressive even in an adult, Branford had been a brute and a bully. Randall had learned to fight early.
Since the heir could do no wrong, Randall was packed off to school at a tender age. In fact, he’d been sent to several schools, some of England’s finest. After being expelled from them in rapid succession, he’d ended up at the Westerfield Academy. As the school’s owner and headmistress, Lady Agnes Westerfield, liked to say, it was for boys of good birth and bad behavior.
In the school that Daventry regarded as punishment, Randall had found kindness and friendship. He had endured holidays at Turville with stoicism and clenched fists. He hated Daventry and Branford, and they had despised him in turn. Fortunately he’d inherited a comfortable income. When Randall left school, he bought a pair of colors and joined the army, ignoring his grand connections as thoroughly as they ignored him.
Until now. Wondering what the devil Daventry had to say to him, Randall broke the wax seal and scanned the few lines written in the earl’s bold hand.
Your cousin Rupert Randall is dead. You are now heir presumptive to Daventry. You must sell your commission and return home. I will expect you to choose a wife and marry within the next year.
Randall stared at the heavy paper, feeling the bitterness in the words. Branford had died years before in some kind of drunken accident, and Daventry’s other son, a sickly child, had died young. But there were any number of cousins nearer to the title than Major Alexander Randall.
He thought about the family tree. Actually, the number wasn’t that great --- the Randalls didn’t seem to be good breeders. The other heirs had mostly been older --- Randall’s father had been a much younger half brother to the current earl. Apparently the intervening cousins were all gone now and hadn’t left any sons.
Randall frowned as he realized that there was no one after him. Otherwise, Daventry would probably have hoped that his despised nephew would die in battle or fever so that the next in line would become the heir presumptive. But there was no next in line, and Daventry was fiercely proud of the title. Even the prospect that the earldom would go to a man he loathed was better than knowing the title would disappear.
Randall’s instant reaction to Daventry’s order was to refuse, as he always did when his uncle gave orders. But he was a grown man now, not a boy, and the idea of selling out was rather appealing. He was weary of war, weary of the ceaseless pain of a leg that had never fully recovered from a wound the year before. The army didn’t need him. Though he was a good officer, there were others equally as good.
With a sigh, he folded up Daventry’s letter. Returning to civilian life would be easy.
Finding a wife would be harder.
The grand sprawl of Ashton House was a welcome sight after Randall’s long journey home from Spain. The mansion was the largest private residence in London, and Randall never entered without thinking how much more impressive it was than Daventry House, his uncle’s London home.
Since the place was far too large for one man, the Duke of Ashton had given Randall his own set of rooms for use whenever he was in London. More than anywhere else, Ashton House was home. The place where he was always greeted with pleasure.
The butler, Holmes, almost smiled. “Major Randall, welcome! I shall inform his grace that you’ve arrived.”
Randall shook raindrops off his hat before handing it over. “The duke and duchess are in residence?”
“Very much so.” Ash’s familiar voice came from behind. Randall turned to see his friends entering the wide foyer.
Mariah, blond and beautiful and glowing with warmth, swept forward and hugged Randall. “What a lovely surprise! Will you be staying in London long?”
“Long enough for you to tire of me.” Randall hugged her back, thinking what a lucky man Ash was.
“Take a few minutes to refresh yourself, then join us in the family dining room.” Ash took his wife’s arm.
“We’re dining informally so no need to change, but we have a guest you’ll enjoy. We can hear everyone’s news at once.”
With such an appealing prospect, Randall took only a few minutes to wash up and produce a general look of respectability before heading downstairs. As he entered the family dining room, a familiar dark, compact figure set down his glass of wine and crossed the room to greet him. “Ballard!” Randall seized his old friend’s hand. “I assumed you were in Portugal.”
“And I thought you were in Spain.” Justin Ballard shook hands with equal enthusiasm, his gray eyes bright in his tanned face. His family owned a famous port company, and he was in charge of Portuguese operations. “I had business in London and it was a good time to return. I like to remind myself that I’m British every year or two.”
“The London weather will take care of that very quickly,” Randall said as he accepted a claret from Ashton. He could feel his tension unwinding as the warm atmosphere embraced him. It was good to be home with friends, and the buoyant Ballard was a particular pleasure.
It had been several years since they had last seen each other in Lisbon. “How are things in Oporto?”
“Much better now that you army laddies have moved the war into Spain.” Ballard retrieved his wineglass and took a sip. “Are you home on leave now?”
Randall shook his head. “I’ve recently become the heir presumptive to Daventry, so it’s time to return to civilian life.”
“You’re selling out?” Ashton asked, startled. “That’s unexpected.”
Randall shrugged. “Technically I’m not selling out, but giving the commission to a qualified captain without the means to pay the purchase price.”
“That’s generous,” Ballard observed as they moved to the waiting dinner table.
“Not really. Seeing this particular captain take over my duties means I can leave with a clear conscience.”
Mariah studied him with wide brown eyes. “Will you miss the army?”
“There are people I’ll miss,” he said slowly. “But on the whole, I’m ready to leave. I’ve never been fond of army discipline. If there wasn’t a war on, I would have been court-martialed for insubordination several times over.”
The others laughed, though it was more truth than joke.
Ashton said sympathetically, “As heir, I suppose now you’ll be told it’s your obligation to wed and produce another heir. I was subjected to such pressures for years.” He glanced at his wife, his expression warm. “It’s worth waiting for the right woman.”
“I do not expect to be so fortunate as you.” He raised his glass to the duchess in an informal toast. “There is only one Mariah.”
“Flatterer,” she scoffed. “When first we met, you thought I was a fortune hunter who had sunk my evil claws into Ash when he was helpless.”
“True,” he admitted, “but I was willing to admit my error.”
“So very generous of you!” she said teasingly. “As to there being only one Mariah, remember that I have an identical twin sister. Sarah looks almost exactly like me, and having been raised normally, she’s far better qualified to be a peeress.”
“Having been raised normally makes her less interesting than you,” he said instantly. Though the comment was lighthearted, it was also true. Mariah’s unconventional upbringing had made her an intriguing woman. She had depths and resilience more “normal” misses lacked.
“You really are getting skilled at flattery. A useful talent if you’re in the market for a wife.” Mariah’s gaze showed female calculation.
“Surely you’re too fond of your sister to wish my bad temper on her!”
“There is that,” she agreed, “but you’d make such a handsome couple. Think of the lovely blond children you’d have together!”
“If we’re promoting the marriageability of sisters, my sister Kiri would be worth considering,” Ashton said, only half-joking. “You’ll only be an earl, of course, but since she’s the daughter of a duke, it will be hard to marry up to her rank.”
“I have a sister, too,” Ballard interjected. “Granted, she’s only fourteen, but she shows promise of being an excellent countess.” He grinned. “She would prefer to become a princess, but I’ve explained there simply aren’t enough princes to go around.”
“All of your sisters are far too good for me,” Randall said firmly. “I expect I’ll look for a wife eventually, but I’m in no hurry. It would be deplorable if Daventry actually thought I was obeying him in this.”
“Rushing to the altar would be foolish,” Ashton agreed. “And your inheritance isn’t guaranteed, since Daventry might still have a son.”
“Possibly, but his wife is at that awkward age,” Randall said. “Too old for childbearing, but young enough to probably outlive her husband.”
Ash frowned. “Given his appalling behavior to you, might Daventry find a way to remove his present wife so he could acquire a younger one?”
“You mean would he push his countess down the stairs to be rid of her?” Randall shook his head. “Despite Daventry’s occasional desire to see me dead, I doubt he’s a murderer, and he’s fond of his current wife. She’s his third. He’s had bad luck with wives and offspring, and a new wife wouldn’t necessarily improve the situation.” “If I recall correctly, there aren’t any other known heirs,” Ballard commented. “Now he’ll have to come to terms with you.”
“I suppose, but not right away. I’ll send Daventry a note that I’m out of the army, but rather than call on him now, I think I’ll go to Scotland. Visit Kirkland. Enjoy fresh, cool air that doesn’t have musket balls flying through it.”
“That’s sensible.” Mariah’s eyes twinkled. “If you’re going to Scotland, you might want to stop by Hartley since it’s not far out of your way. My sister may be more interesting than you remember.”
“I shall consider it.” Randall applied himself to his roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Mariah was right about her sister. Sarah was exactly the kind of girl he should marry --- attractive, sensible, capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of a countess when the time came. She would make someone an excellent wife.
But the only female to have caught Randall’s interest in the last decade was a woman, not a girl. And she was certainly not a lady in the view of society. Mrs. Bancroft --- Julia --- was a widowed midwife and healer in Hartley, and a good friend of Mariah’s. She was reserved to the point of invisibility, and she’d certainly shown no signs of interest in Randall. She was entirely unsuitable. Yet she haunted him.
If he visited the Townsends, he could also see Julia. It was a foolish thought.
“Mrs. Bancroft?” a light female voice called as the bells on the cottage door rang to indicate a visitor. “It’s me, Ellie Flynn.”
“Good afternoon, Ellie.” Julia moved from the kitchen into her examining room, taking the young woman’s toddler into her arms. “How is Master Alfred feeling today?”
“Much better, Mrs. Bancroft.” The woman smiled fondly at her redheaded son, who was reaching for Julia’s cat. “That horehound and honey tea you gave me helped his cough right smartly.”
“The Duchess of Ashton’s cough remedy.” Julia looked the little boy over. He grinned back at her. “The name alone is halfway to being a cure.”
The tea was a recipe she’d learned from her friend Mariah, who hadn’t been a duchess then. Mariah had been raised by a grandmother who was a village healer not unlike Julia, but more knowledgeable about herbs. Julia had learned a few simple remedies from the midwife who had trained her, but Mariah knew many more, and her recipes had been a good addition to Julia’s store of treatments.
She handed the little boy back to his mother. “He’s flourishing. You’re doing a fine job raising him, Ellie.” “I couldn’t have done it without your help. When he was born, I hardly knew which end was which!” Ellie, also redheaded and no more than nineteen, shyly offered a worn canvas bag. “I’ve some nice fresh eggs for you, if you’d like them.”
“Lovely! I’ve been wanting an egg for my tea.” Julia accepted the bag and moved to the kitchen of her cottage, removing the eggs from their straw packing so she could return the bag. She never turned away a mother or child in need, so while many of her patients couldn’t afford to pay in cash, Julia and her household ate well.
After Mrs. Flynn and her little boy left, Julia sat at her desk and wrote notes about patients she’d seen that day. Whiskers, her tabby cat, snoozed beside her. After finishing her notes, Julia sat back and petted the cat as she surveyed her kingdom.
Rose Cottage had two reception rooms at the front of the house. She used this one as an office for treating patients and storing remedies. The other front chamber was her sitting room. Kitchen, pantry, and a bedroom ran across the back of the cottage. A slant-roofed but spacious second bedroom was up the narrow stairs.
Behind the cottage was a stable for her placid pony, and a garden that produced herbs and vegetables. The flowers in front of the cottage were there simply because she believed that everyone needed flowers.
Rose Cottage was not what she’d been raised to, but that life had turned out very badly. This life was so much better.
She had her own home, friends, and she provided a vital service for this remote community. With no physicians nearby, she had become more than a midwife. She set bones and treated wounds and minor illnesses. Some claimed she was better than the doctors in Carlisle. Certainly she was cheaper.
Though her trip to London several months earlier as Mariah’s chaperone had left her restless, she was mostly content in Hartley. She would never have a child of her own, but she had many children in her life, as well as the respect of the community. She took pride in the fact that she’d built this life for herself with her own hard work.
The front door opened and a young woman bustled in, a toddler on one hip and a canvas bag slung over her shoulder. Julia smiled at the other two members of her household. “You’re back early, Jenny. How are Mrs. Wolf and Annie?”
Jenny Watson beamed. “Happy and healthy. Since I Delivered Annie myself, whenever I see her I’m as proud as if I’d invented babies.”
Julia laughed. “I know the feeling. Helping a baby into the world is a joy.”
Jenny reached into her bag. “Mr. Wolf sent along a nice bit of bacon.”
“That will go well with Ellie Flynn’s eggs.”
“I’ll fix us our tea then.” Jenny headed into the kitchen and set her daughter in a cradle by the hearth. Molly, fourteen months old, yawned hugely and curled up for a nap. Julia watched the child fondly. Jenny was not the first desperate pregnant girl who had shown up on Julia’s doorstep, but she was the only one to become part of the household. Jenny had married a man against her family’s wishes. Her family had turned their backs when he abandoned her, saying that she’d made her bed and must lie in it.
Near starvation, Jenny had offered to work as Julia’s servant for no wages, only food and a roof over her head. The girl had proved to be clever and a hard worker, and after Molly’s birth, she became Julia’s apprentice. She was well on her way to becoming a fine midwife, and she and her child had become Julia’s family.
Jenny had just called, “Our tea is ready!” when the string of bells that hung on the front door jangled. Julia made a face. “I wish I had a shilling for every time I’ve been interrupted during a meal!”
She stood --- then froze with horror at the sight of the three men who entered her home. Two were strangers, but the burly scar-faced leader was familiar. Joseph Crockett, the vilest man she’d ever known, had found her.
“Well, well, well. So Lady Julia really is alive,” he said menacingly as he pulled a glittering knife from a sheath under his coat. “That can be fixed.”
Whiskers hissed and dashed into the kitchen while Julia backed away from him, numb with panic. After years of quiet hiding, she was a dead woman.
The pretty maid who answered the door of Hartley Manor bobbed a curtsy as she recognized the caller. “I’m sorry, Major Randall, but the Townsends are away from home. A niece of Mrs. Townsend is getting married down south, so they decided to attend the wedding.”
During Randall’s pleasant fortnight in Scotland with his friend Kirkland, he toyed with the idea of visiting Mariah’s family, but he hadn’t made up his mind until he reached the road that followed the Cumberland coast west to Hartley. He liked the Townsends and there was no harm in calling on them, even if he wasn’t interested in courting Sarah. And if he chanced to see Julia Bancroft --- perhaps that would cure him of his unfortunate attraction.
Impulses didn’t always work out well. He gave one of his cards to the maid. “Please let them know I called.” The girl frowned at the card. “It’s getting late, sir. Mr. And Mrs. Townsend will be right unhappy with me if you don’t spend the night here as a guest of the house.”
Randall hesitated only a moment. There was a decent little inn down in the village, but he’d had a long day, his leg ached, and he was traveling alone since his servant and former batman, Gordon, was visiting his own family. Randall and his horses deserved a rest. “Does Mrs. Beckett still reign in the kitchen?”
The maid smiled impishly. “She does indeed, sir, and she’d be pleased to have a hungry man to feed.”
“Then I accept your kind invitation most gratefully.”
He descended the stairs to take his light travel carriage and horses around to the stable. While he wouldn’t be seeing Sarah Townsend, surely manners dictated that he pay a call on Mrs. Bancroft in the morning before resuming his journey south.
Useful things, manners.
Joseph Crockett stepped close and touched the tip of his knife to Julia’s throat. As she stood rigid, wondering if she was going to die right here and now, he growled, “You’re going to take a ride with us, your ladyship. You know who will be at the end of it.” He applied enough pressure to pierce the skin. As a drop of blood oozed down her neck, he added, “Mind you behave, or I’ll cut your throat. No one will blame me if I have to kill a murderess.”
A horrified gasp sounded from the door of the kitchen as Jenny appeared, drawn by the voices. Crockett cursed and spun toward her, raising the knife.
“No!” Julia grabbed his wrist. “For the love of God, don’t hurt her! Jenny can do you no harm.”
“She might raise the alarm after I take you,” he growled.
Molly wobbled into sight, her round face scrunched with worry as she grabbed her mother’s skirt. Jenny scooped up the child and backed into the kitchen, her eyes terrified.
“Get her!” Crockett snapped.
The younger of the other two men moved after Jenny and took her arm so she could retreat no further. “Killing a mother and her babe would raise a hue and cry for sure,” the man said. “I can tie the lass so she won’t be able to escape till tomorrow. We’ll be far away before anyone notices anything wrong.”
After an agonizingly long pause, Crockett said grudgingly, “Very well, tie the chit up. We’ll leave as soon as you’re done.”
Voice not quite steady, Julia said, “Since I’m not coming back, I’d like to write a note saying I leave the cottage and its contents to Jenny.”
“Ever the lady bountiful,” he said brusquely. “Be quick about it.”
After she scrawled the two sentences that were her last will and testament, Crockett scanned the paper to see if she’d said anything about her fate. Satisfied, he dropped it on her worktable. “Get your shawl. There’s a long journey ahead.”
She did as he ordered, collecting her warm, shabby shawl and bonnet. Was there anything else she should take? Dead women needed nothing. Ignoring Crockett, she went to the Windsor chair Jenny was tied to and gave the girl a hug. “I leave you my cottage and everything else.”
She bent and kissed Molly, who hid behind her mother’s skirts. “You’re a good midwife, Jenny. Don’t worry about me. I…I’ve had more good years than I expected.” “What is all this about?” her friend whispered, tears on her cheeks.
“Justice,” Crockett snapped.
“The less you know, the better. Good-bye, my dear.” Julia wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and turned to the door.
Crockett raised several coils of chain. “Now, to make sure you can’t run off, your ladyship.” He snapped a manacle around her left wrist and jerked her toward him like a leashed animal.
The chain came near to breaking her. She would drop to her knees and beg for her life if she thought it would do any good. But Crockett would laugh at her weakness. Since death was inevitable, she’d face it with her head high and her dignity intact.
She had nothing else left.
Julia walked outside, chain clanking. A plain closed carriage waited, a driver on the box. Four villainous men to one undersized midwife. There would be no escape. Crockett opened the door and pointed her to the corner seat on the far side from the door. Then he sat next to her, the chain firmly in his grasp. When Crockett and his minions were in place, the carriage set off.
Numbly she gazed out the window as they drove through Hartley. When the village fell behind them, she closed her eyes and suppressed her tears. She’d been happy here at the far edge of the world.
But it hadn’t been far enough.
Excerpted from NEVER LESS THAN A LADY © Copyright 2011 by Mary Jo Putney. Reprinted with permission by Zebra. All rights reserved.