Read A Bouquet of Thorns Online

Authors: Tania Crosse

Tags: #Romance

A Bouquet of Thorns (5 page)

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‘How dare you!' she snarled, her cry ripping through the house. ‘How bloody, sodding dare you! He wasn't yours to sell! He was
mine
! The only good thing left in my life, and you
sold
him! Well, you'd better damned well get him back!'

‘Really, Rose, I won't have you using such disgusting language! It just proves that your father let you get away with far too much, though I'm sure he would turn in his grave to hear such words coming from you. And may I remind you that our son is—'

‘Don't you dare come near me!' she screamed as Charles got to his feet and stepped around to her side of the desk. ‘And don't you dare talk about my father like that! He were a better man than you'll ever—'

‘And one who was so deeply in debt that you had to marry me to save him from the workhouse,' Charles broke in, his voice cold and unbending. ‘Don't think I hadn't guessed. But as it happens I was very fond of Henry and was quite happy to provide for him. And I had you, so we both got what we wanted. You are young and impetuous and need to be trained, but despite what you might think, I do love you, and only want what is best for you.'

‘Well, you've a mighty queer way of showing it! Now you'd better get Gospel back or I'll . . . I'll . . .'

‘You'll
what
, Rose? And anyway, I can't get him back. I sold him to a dealer who already had a buyer lined up. Now look, Rose.' He lifted his hands as if to place them on her shoulders, his heart softened by his wife's pale, distraught face. But she shrank away as if she couldn't bear to have him touch her and he dropped his arms limply to his sides. ‘I'm sorry, but I had to teach you a lesson somehow. Aiding and abetting an escaped convict, I don't know. What next? But with a more suitable mount, a nice little mare perhaps, and ridden side-saddle, of course, now
that
would be far more respectable. Then we'll all be happy.'

‘Well,
I
won't be!'

Flints of ice flashed in Rose's eyes as they speared frostily into his. Her world had disintegrated around her, and she struggled in one of the most appalling moments of her life to retain her dignity. She was so stunned that she couldn't think what to say or do next. And so she spun on her heel and flounced haughtily out of the study, head held high. But once out in the hallway, she fled back upstairs and flung herself on the bed, her fists balled so tightly that her fingernails drew blood in her palms. An untamed, unearthly howl wailed from her throat like some creature from hell, and she let it come, powerless and broken.

‘Whatever be the matter, my lamb?' Florrie bustled into the bedroom, drawn from unpacking her few belongings in her old room in the attic. She came and sat on the edge of the bed, and Rose lifted herself up and turned to cling to the dear woman she loved, sobbing inconsolably.

‘Charles . . . that . . . that monster . . . he's . . . he's sold Gospel.'

‘He's done
what
?' Florrie's voice was high with disbelief and she was already on her feet. ‘My God, I'll give him—'

‘'Tis no use, Florrie. 'Twill do no good.' Rose sniffed, swallowed as she clawed her way out of the drowning misery. ‘'Tis not the way to deal with Charles.'

‘But . . . but
Gospel
?' Florrie groaned, still horrified.

Rose clamped her jaw defiantly. ‘I'll find a way. Somehow. I just hope . . . I just hope whoever has Gospel just now doesn't hurt him. You know what he's like. Oh, poor Gospel! 'Tis all my fault really. 'Tis Charles's way of punishing me for helping Seth.'

‘Oh, Rose.' Florrie released a huge sigh, her ample bosom rising and falling. ‘I don't know why you married that man, really I don't. I always felt there were summat 'bout him.'

Rose met her gaze, her own expression tortured. She had never told Florrie the full extent of their financial straits. She had known things were tight, of course, when they had been forced to leave the manager's house at the powder mills after it had become clear that Henry would never walk again and so could not continue in his position there. Mr Frean, the proprietor, had generously given them a hundred pounds from his own pocket, but once Rose had paid all their creditors, there was little enough left and their future was uncertain.

Rose, however, had secured the lease of one of the Duke of Bedford's Westbridge cottages in Tavistock, built twenty-five years earlier for the workers of the town and the surrounding area. One of several developments, they consisted of numerous rows of sturdy stone cottages, each with two downstairs rooms, both known as kitchens, one of which would have made a bedroom for Henry, while the other had a modern range for cooking. Upstairs were three further rooms, and outside an earth closet, a pigsty, a small garden and a standpipe shared with one's neighbour.

It wasn't exactly what they were used to, but Rose had been determined that they would all lead a happy life together and was actually quite looking forward to it. She had even found a field with a stable to rent near the town where Gospel could be kept. The problem was how to pay for it all?

The solution, though, was quite simple. Rose would find herself a position. It still wouldn't be easy. The rent for the cottage was to be one shilling and sixpence a week, that for Gospel's livery two and threepence, with food, fuel and other expenses on top. Rose had hoped that she could put the remainder of Mr Frean's generous gift into an interest-bearing account to supplement her wages, but she had been shocked to learn that most of the furniture in the manager's house had come with it, so to speak, so that at the very least she would have to buy beds for her father and Florrie. She herself could sleep on a straw mattress on the floor, and in all other ways they could make do, the only other essential item, as far as Rose was concerned, being a bath chair so that either she or Florrie could push Henry along the streets of Tavistock or on outings alongside the river or the canal.

She had scoured the
Tavistock Gazette
and found two advertisements requiring a governess. That would be right up Rose's street, and she had managed to arrange both interviews for the same day. She had dressed in an appropriate, serviceable outfit, and had taken Polly and the dog cart rather than riding Gospel since she could hardly arrive at an interview as a governess wearing her riding habit! She had stabled Polly at an inn for the day, and then had set out confidently, convinced that by the end of the day, all their problems would be solved.

She had paused with her hand on the latch of the intricate wrought-iron gate for just one fleeting moment before striding up the long, immaculately kept front garden in Plymouth Road, her heart battering against her ribcage. The tall, imposing villa was one of a terrace of opulent buildings overlooking the water meadows and the recently disused Tavistock Canal that ended, over four miles away, above the inland river port of Morwellham on the River Tamar. Only the wealthiest people of the town could afford these sought-after houses in such a pleasant situation, and though she was accustomed to rubbing shoulders with the moneyed classes, a vice of apprehension tightened around Rose's chest: she
must
be offered the position.

Her hand pulled lightly on the bell ring. The sudden loud clang from inside made her jump, and set her shivering on the doorstep. It was March and a bitterly cold wind was making the crocuses tremble with fragility among the well-tended lawn. When the door opened and a stern grey face enshrouded in a starched white cap poked itself forward, Rose had to swallow down her nerves.

‘Yes?' So blunt, the sharp eyes scrutinizing her. And she was just the maid!

‘Miss Maddiford,' she answered, her voice nonetheless reproducing her usual confidence. ‘I've come about the position as governess. I believe your mistress is expecting me.'

‘Governess is servant, same as the rest on us,' the starched cap snapped. ‘Try down there!' And it bobbed towards the steps to the semi-basement and then the door slammed in Rose's face.

The air stung in her seething nostrils. Her inborn pride lifted her head, and without a second thought, she rang the bell again. This time she was ready.

‘If I am to teach the children of this house, then I deserve some respect, and I
will
enter by the front door,' she told the slack-jawed woman as she pushed past her into the hallway. ‘And now, if you would tell your mistress I am here?'

She smiled with mocking sweetness and straightened her shoulders as the maid opened her mouth, but with no suitable response ready on her stunned tongue, the woman shut it again before disappearing around the corner. Rose waited patiently, approving of but not overwhelmed by the interior decoration. She heard a knock, followed by low voices, and then was shown into a lavishly furnished drawing room.

She bowed her head, for
now
was the time to show deference to the lady
of the house. She waited a moment, allowing her prospective employer to study her appearance, before looking up, but remembering not to smile.

‘Come forward, girl, and don't be shy.'

She obeyed, and found herself standing before a well-dressed woman of no more than thirty years old who seemed more interested in reading the letter in her hand, which Rose recognized as her application. The woman folded it with obsessive neatness, grunted, and then turned to Rose with a hostile gaze.

‘So,' she began abrasively. ‘You have not been a governess before, and you have no references. So why do you consider yourself qualified to teach my children?'

Rose's head tipped on her erect neck. ‘Because I am educated myself, ma'am.'

‘Really? At which institution?'

‘My father taught me, ma'am.'

The woman's lips compressed with disdain. ‘Your father? And he is, I take it, a teacher himself, or a man of the cloth, perhaps?'

‘No, ma'am. A businessman, but educated at grammar school. He taught me everything – reading, writing, reckoning, history, geography . . .'

‘But since you would be teaching my daughters, I assume you could pass on to them some of the more genteel skills – drawing and painting, for instance?'

‘Yes, ma'am, I can paint and draw,' Rose replied, though how well was another matter, she thought grimly to herself.

‘And can you teach singing and music? Play the pianoforte?'

Rose knew she stiffened. ‘I'm afraid not, ma'am.'

‘And do you speak French?'

Rose's heart sighed as she averted her eyes. ‘I'm afraid French was not something my father had any reason to—'

‘Is there
nothing
you can teach my girls, then?' The woman's gaze flashed with irritation. ‘Not even needlepoint and embroidery?'

Rose jerked up her head. This so-called lady of the house seemed intent upon humiliating her, and had Rose not been so desperate, she would have given her the length of her tongue! But sewing, now that was something she knew she excelled in.

‘I design and make all my own clothes.' She dared to smile. ‘There's nothing I can't do with a needle.'

‘Then I suggest you look for a position as a dressmaker or a seamstress! Good day to you, Miss Maddiford!'

Rose blinked at her, her wounded pride brimming with indignation. ‘Oh, but,
please
, ma'am, just let me—'

‘I believe you can find your own way out.'

‘Oh, yes, ma'am! I believe I am quite capable of
something
!'

She spun on her heel, her jaw clamped, and swept out of the room, deliberately leaving the door, and then the front door, wide open. Good Lord! Thank goodness she hadn't been offered the position, for she could no more work for such a harridan than . . . than . . .

She stalked along Plymouth Road, the anger emptying out of her and being replaced by tears of shame and confusion. Perhaps after all, she just wasn't suited to working. But she
had
to find a job! Her father and Florrie were depending on her! She was intelligent, diligent, polite if she was given respect in return, so there must be something she could do!

By the time she reached Bedford Square, her fury had calmed. She shouldn't expect her first interview to be a success, so she took herself off to a bench in the churchyard to consume the bread and cheese she had brought with her for lunch. She sat and trembled with cold and dejection. The wind had sharpened, snow-dust blowing in scudding circles, the sky leaden with yellow-tinged, smoky grey clouds. Winter was returning, and she felt it would break her spirit in two. But she
must
find the courage to soldier on, for the war had scarcely begun!

The second household could not have been more different. A frail young woman was sat next to a roaring fire, her two sons, aged eight and five, playing at her feet. Rose warmed to the mistress at once. They took tea like old friends, the older boy chatting away to Rose, whilst the younger child found his way on to her knee and she slipped easily into inventing a word game almost without realizing it, while their mother looked on with a contented smile.

‘You are heaven sent, Miss Maddiford – or may we call you Miss Rose?' She beamed. ‘My health is not what it should be, and I believe you would be of such help to me. I should like you to be as part of the family.'

A welcoming glow tingled down to Rose's feet. She had done it! And the little boys were delightful, bright, happy and interested. The world suddenly seemed a friendlier place.

‘My husband and I had settled on a wage of three and sixpence a week, rising to four shillings after a year's satisfactory service. I do hope that will be acceptable to you. Payable at the end of each quarter, but we could advance you a little to begin with, if it will be of help.'

Rose felt her soul plummet like a bird shot dead in full flight. ‘Three and sixpence,' she echoed tonelessly as the little boy slipped from her lap.

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