September 18th, 1892
Mother Marie-Jocelyn closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger. When she looked again, the small notations in the ledger had not changed. With a sigh, she laid aside the quill.
A month, maybe two, and she would be forced to close the doors, disperse the children and Sisters to other priories. Unthinkable. And unmistakable.
Non. She lifted her chin.
“Deus providebit.” God would provide.
A growl drew her attention to the window.
“Qu’est que c’est, Mitso?”
The big tom cat perched on the stone sill flicked an ear in her direction, but he did not look away from the darkness, and hailstorm battering the windowpane. Pushing to her feet, Mother Marie-Jocelyn arched her spine, and groaned as she dug the balls of her thumbs into the tight muscles of her lower back. She’d spent far too long labouring over short facts.
Joining Mitso at the window, she smoothed the thick, soft fur along the length of his broad back. “Qu’y a-t-il, mon ange?”
He meowed, pressed his nose to the glass.
“I checked,” she assured him. “The girls are quiet. No one is ready.”
A low growl rumbled in his chest. She forced open the casement. Wind whipped in and snuffed the guttering candle on her desk, casting the second-floor office into darkness.
“Better?” she murmured.
Mitso quieted, but his long tail continued its side-to-side sweep revealing his agitation. Crossing her arms against a rise of similar disquiet, she peered through the bombardment of thumb-sized ice pellets, at the flickering orange lights demarcating the city’s sprawl. The foul weather made the roads slick, near impassable. Only a fool, or someone desperate, would venture out on a night like this.
A faint echo of hooves on cobblestones suggested one, or the other, had risked the journey. And confirmed Mitso’s clairvoyance worked as well as ever.
Mother Marie-Jocelyn remained at the window, until the distant sound became a crescendo of synchronised clops resolving in to the dark shape of a coach-and-four topping the rise, bound for the portico. Snapping the window closed, she straightened her wimple, and nodded to Mitso.
“Oui, mon vieux, tu avais raison.” He was always right.
Mitso leaped gracefully to the floor and preceded her to the stairs, his black-tipped ears and broad head high, long black and white tail plumed elegantly over his back. She hastened after him, her appreciation of his unique abilities quelled only by her confusion over the late-night arrival.
Those able to afford wheeled transport did so by day. Of those, only the archbishop was a regular visitor, and not due for another month. The remainders were benefactors interested in assessing the worthiness of any potential donation. Yet even those had slowed to a sporadic trickle of late, as the clamour for charitable aid within the city escalated in direct proportion to its rapidly expanding boundaries.
More rail links meant more people flooding into the city from all over France, and elsewhere, in search of work, business, and scholarly pursuits. Those unable to swiftly secure jobs, or establish successful storefronts, found themselves adrift in a city where an abundance of people and scarcity of food meant everyone paid a prince’s sum for inconsequential quantities. An unconscionable number were lucky to eat once a day.
These were the people she was used to finding on the Abbey’s doorstep, the poor, the hungry, desperate, and remorseful; the terrified and the lost. And though certainly the wealthy were not immune to fear and remorse, or a sense of personal disaffection, they did not yank the bell rope and simultaneously pound on the door at half of midnight.
Mother Marie-Jocelyn arrived in the candle-lit foyer in time to stop Sister Bernadette who’d responded to the ruckus. “I will take care of this, Sister.”
Sister Bernadette acquiesced with a demure nod, and retreated to a polite distance. Mother Marie-Jocelyn knew better than to attempt to shoo her out entirely.
Short of stature and rotund of flesh, Sister Bernadette possessed the heart and soul of a Titan. She would quietly disappear into inner sanctums when, and only when, she was convinced the person on the other side of the door posed no threat to her Mother Superior, or the convent’s residents.
The man blew in with a spattering of hail, his hat clutched to his head with one hand, long overcoat flapping about his dark-trouser legs. “My wife is in the carriage. She’s in pain. Hurry.”
The same wind threatening to knock the man off his feet threatened to extinguish the meagre flames of the wall sconces; they wavered, tossing grotesque shadows around the stone corridor.
Shaking off her surprise that the late-night visitor was English, Mother Marie-Jocelyn shoved the oak door closed, but kept one hand on the handle, ready to aid the man’s exit. “Monsieur, this is not the Hôpital. It is—”
“I’m not interested in the hospital, nun. I’m interested in help. My wife’s ready to birth.”
Mother Marie-Jocelyn was taller than most men. Not this one. And having to lift her chin to meet his gaze was mildly unnerving. His behaviour, however, was comfortingly familiar. Worry and wealth often brought out the worst in people. He was crippled by both.
Summoning a smile, she murmured, “Monsieur—”
He cut her off with an imperious wave of his black-gloved hand. “I’ve made no mistake, nun. I was told we would receive good care here. And anonymity. Is that not so?”
“Oui, I offer both to those in need—”
“Good. Then collect my wife.”
This was a man used to being obeyed, to having his every wish, every command acted upon. Immediately. And this was her home, she its mistress. She did not take orders from anyone, least of all pompous foreigners.
“Certainly, Monsieur,” she said softly to mask her irritation, “your wife would prefer the comfort of a docteur, and to be in a place where she can receive visitors, non?”
“No.” He pursed his thin lips. “We’ve no intention of receiving visitors. We came here seeking privacy, and I expect you’ll provide it.”
“But Monsieur, this place is—”
“I know what this place is, nun.” His eyes widened marginally, an action that seemed to emphasize their glacial colour. “Now stop quibbling and aid my wife.”
Sister Bernadette’s cherubic features remained unchanged; her reaction burned in her eyes: sorrow, and anger.
Drawing a slow breath, Mother Marie-Jocelyn searched the man’s face, and sadly, found what she was looking for. Still, she had to be certain.
Clearing her throat, she murmured, “You do not intend to keep the child?”
His galenite stare was as icy as his tone.
“No,” he said. “I do not.”
Thy Father’s Decree
“I will not.”
“You will. The contract is signed, and the betrothal announcement sent to the Times for issuance in the new year.”
Dianna Marshall gripped her knees through the soft linen of her gown to keep from leaping to her feet and stared at her father through the haze of pipe smoke swirling above the wide polished expanse of his desk. “You’ve signed a contract, and sent out an announcement, without my consent?”
“That is the crux of your confusion,” he murmured, his gold-trimmed pipe cupped in one long-fingered hand. “You think I’m seeking your approval. I’m not. It’s decided. You’ll marry His Grace next summer, and in good time, you’ll come to appreciate the magnitude of this fortuitous arrangement.”
Mama, ensconced under a blanket on the sofa near the hearth, splayed her slender fingers over the small mound that represented Papa’s latest—and likely last—hope for a male heir, silent signal that this was her priority, not her eldest daughter who, undoubtedly, should be beyond grateful a duke would offer for her. Dianna didn’t disagree. One of her childhood fantasies had been to be courted by a duke. Just not this duke.
“You can’t do this, Papa,” she said, shaking her head. “You can’t make me do this. It’s not fair. It’s not right. I’ve not made my debut, had a chance to meet anyone, anyone else whose suit you might approve—”
“Life is rarely fair, and His Grace more than suits.” He glanced at Mama, and Dianna held her breath. He was reconsidering his dictum, seeking silent counsel—His cold gaze raked back to her. “You’ll do well to remember that.”
“The only thing I’ll remember is how unfair you’re being.”
Seated, Lord Edward George Arvon Marshall, seventh earl of Ansmall, was intimidating. Standing, he was formidable.
Over six-foot-tall, his black hair razor-short at nape and ears, the longer strands on top slicked back with pomade, dark suit and white, collared shirt creased to stiff conformity, he exuded power. And expected obedience.
Her bravado wavered under the weight of his glacial glare; a tactic designed to chill even the most stalwart of his legislative opponents.
Except he wasn’t in London. And she wasn’t one of his political adversaries.
Fisting her hands, she locked her knees. She had no recollection of getting to her feet, but there she was, and there she would remain. He would respect no less.
A log shifted in the hearth eliciting a brief hiss of sparks, and bright orange glow that glanced off the thin white scar arced over his cheekbone, adding a hellish glare to his silvery-blue eyes as he narrowed them. “You,” he murmured, “will do as your mother and I bade, as you have been raised to do, and marry the man we deem best suited to enhance your position. Do you understand?”
No, she didn’t understand. But her mouth was too dry, and her situation too tenuous, to permit her to say so. She couldn’t marry without his consent for at least another two years. Even then she would need his approval of her choice of husband, if she wished to have any hope of maintaining her welcome at Ansmall Hall, which she very much did.
She and Papa might mix like oil and water, but she adored her sisters, and loved Mama. The prospect of being denied their company—this time Mama not only met Dianna’s gaze, she held it, her message quite clear: acquiesce gracefully, Daughter, and preferably with a smile.
Dianna clenched her teeth against a rush of bile.
“I’m glad to see you’re finally learning to control your tongue and exhibit a little grace,” Papa said. “Perhaps you’ll prove yourself duchess material after all.”
Duchess. Duchess of Blackburn.
The prospect should invigorate her. Yet all she felt was… ill.
“Why?” she rasped. “Why him?”
Papa arched a single black eyebrow. “I told you. He’s a good match.”
“But not the only good match. There are many wealthy bachelors in Britain.” Much younger bachelors. Few were dukes, true, but she would happily marry a marquess or earl, even a viscount was he someone who warmed her heart. The duke definitely did not warm her heart. He chilled it.
She’d only met him once, yet the memory clung to her like cobwebs. She remembered her gratitude for the combined material of their gloves that prevented her feeling his skin, which she knew had to be as dry and withered as his countenance, especially when he did not let go of her hand when she rose from her curtsy, but held on longer than seemed—to her, anyway—respectable, his heavy-lidded and disconcertingly dark brown, almost black eyes, searching her face.
“My God,” she whispered. “He already knew. At the King’s coronation. You and he had already discussed it. Discussed me. And he… he used the opportunity to appraise me. Like he might a horse at auction.” She struggled for breath, horrified by the gross betrayal. Worse, unaware of her status as available goods, she’d been on her best behaviour; polite, deferential. Demure. So much so, she’d fooled the duke into believing she’d make a respectable—biddable—wife.
“How could you?” she demanded. “How could you not tell me, before you introduced me to him, what you and he were planning? What did I ever do to make you wish to wound me so?”
“Wound you?” Papa’s rapier eyebrows converged over his nose that, like everything else within his purveyance aligned narrowly and perfectly, as though he had personally sketched the finished result before agreeing to his own birth. “I’ve landed you an opportunity any number of your peers would be over the moon with gratitude to have—”
“I’m not any of my peers, Papa, I’m—”
“I know exactly who you are.” He planted a hand on the desk, stabbed the stem of his pipe towards her with his other hand. “You’re mine. Mine to protect, mine to ensure the future of—mine to decide what is best for, and I’ve decided that this is best. And you’ll do it, Dianna. By God, for once in your life you will do as you’re told. You’ll marry the duke, or you will live to regret it. Now go.” He straightened, jabbed his pipe towards the door. “Go, before I do something we’ll both regret.”
Mama, chin tucked in the frothy lace collar of her nightdress and robe, stared at her wedding set she twisted to-and-fro on her slender finger. With her curly auburn hair slung in a single thick braid over one shoulder, and blessedly smooth freckled skin, she looked more like a child, than a mother. More schoolgirl, than countess.
Closing her eyes, and feeling a good century older than she was, and not near the obedient daughter she knew Papa preferred her be, Dianna hiked a breath, willed composure to her voice as she matched him glower for glower. “You think I won’t regret being forced to marry against my wishes?”
His nostrils flared. “Go,” he snarled. “Go, before I—”
“No buts,” he bellowed. “And no more discussion. No more dissent from you, or I will confine you—and your sisters—to this house, until you are safely wed. Do you understand me?”
She opened her mouth. And closed it. It was one thing for him to threaten to incarcerate her, but to cast the same restrictive net over her sisters for her disobedience? She couldn’t do that, make them suffer her penance. Lizzy would go absolutely mad could she not go outside, and although Elaina preferred the indoors to the out, she’d never forgive Dianna dragging her into Papa’s bad book. Not when Lainey prided herself on her adherence to the earl’s many and exhaustive rules.
The tendons ridging the back of Mama’s fisted hands quivered, the only indicator that she was not cast in stone, because she steadfastly refused to look up, or even breathe so far as Dianna could tell.
“I told you to leave your mother out of this,” Papa said through gritted teeth. “This is my decision, and I’ve made it, and you will abide it.”
Dianna dragged her gaze from her mother and focused on the shrivelled snow-capped rosebushes in the garden outside the tall windows behind her father. She exhaled, relaxed her hands and shoulders.
There was nothing more to be gained from further argument. She would only enflame the situation, compel Papa to rage, a loss of control that might result in him dragging her off to the altar sooner than later. And she was going to need every single hour of every precious day between now and the planned wedding to figure out how to get out of the egregious arrangement. Dropping a grudging curtsy, she whirled, and fled the room.
The love story continues …
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