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Authors: Fenella J Miller

The Duke's Challenge

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THE DUKE’S CHALLENGE

By

Fenella J Miller

 

All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
transmitted in any form or by any method, electronic, mechanical, recording or
otherwise, without the prior written permission of The Author - Fenella J.
Miller

The Duke’s Challenge Copyright Fenella J.
Miller, 2012

This e-Book is a work of fiction. While
references may be made to actual places or events, the names, characters,
incidents, and locations within are from the author’ s imagination and are not
a resemblance to actual living or dead persons, businesses, or events. Any
similarity is coincidental.

 
 

(Originally published
as Lord Thurston’s Challenge)

 

 

 

This book is for

Jackie
Ladbury

Good friend and great writer.

 
 
 
 

Cover design by Jane Dixon-Smith©

 
 
 
 

Chapter One

 
 

England 1816

 

‘Promise me,
Charlotte, you must promise me, that when I am gone you will go to your
grandfather, take Beth and Harry with you.’

Charlotte
swallowed the lump in her throat. ‘Please don’t talk about dying, Mama, you
have had worse bouts of fever and recovered. I’m sure it will be no different
this time.’

Mama closed
her eyes. ‘I have very little time; we both know that, my darling. You must
give me your word that whatever your feelings on the matter, you will take your
brother and sister to Thurston Hall and persuade my father to take you in.’

Charlotte had
no choice. Her beloved mother was fading, how could she deny her last wish? Her
eyes brimmed as she bent down to kiss her mother’s pallid cheek. ‘I promise. I
shall do as you wish. I’m going to call in Beth and Harry to say goodnight.’
They both knew she meant goodbye.

She rose
gracefully and hurried across the sparsely furnished bedchamber to the door.
She opened it softly. ‘Beth, Harry, you must come in now.’

Beth, at
eleven, was almost her replica, with russet hair, and a perfect oval face. Her
white pinafore was crumpled from her long wait outside the chamber and her
faded, blue cambric dress, tight around her chest. The girl scrambled to her
feet, green eyes huge in her pale face. ‘Is it time? How can I bear it,
Lottie?’

‘You have to
be brave, my love, for Harry’s sake.’ She knelt down and shook her little
brother gently. ‘Wake up, Harry. Mama wishes to speak to you.’

The boy
yawned sleepily and rubbed his eyes, smiling up at her. Then he remembered and
his face crumpled and he buried his face in her skirts. ‘Hush now, darling. We
must not upset Mama. She will be going to join Papa in heaven very
soon,
we don’t want her last moments here on earth to be
sad, do we?’

Charlotte led
the reluctant children back into the room, the three candles scarcely enough to
illuminate it. ‘Mama, we are here, we love you and you mustn’t worry. I shall
take care of all of us. You can go to join
Papa,
he is
waiting for you in Paradise.’

Mama opened her eyes and a faint smile flickered across her wasted
features, then with a barely audible hiss, she breathed her last. For a moment
Charlotte didn’t understand what had happened.

Beth whispered to her. ‘Lottie – Mama’s not breathing anymore.’ Then
the girl snatched her hand free and ran, sobbing from the room. Before
Charlotte would react Harry vanished also, leaving her alone in the semi-
darkness with the body of her mother.

Overwhelmed
with grief, forgetting for a moment her promise to be strong, she collapsed
across the bed, bathing her mother’s rapidly cooling features with her tears.
She heard footsteps behind her.

‘Oh, miss,
you must come away. Let me take care of her ladyship now.’ She felt the strong
arms of her mother’s maid lift her, and she made no protest.

‘Thank you,
Annie. I have to find the children, offer them what comfort I can.’ She
hesitated, for once at a loss.

‘Go along,
Miss Carstairs, Betty and I will take care of everything here. I sent young
Bill to fetch the undertaker. Your mother didn’t wish you to be involved with
the laying out.’

Charlotte left;
there was nothing there to keep her. She paused in the draughty passageway,
scrubbing her cheeks dry with her fists. She must push her own grief aside; she
was the only mother Beth and Harry had now.

If only there
was more time, but the funds they had relied on for the past two years would
cease on her mother’s death. They had barely managed these past few months; the
medical bills had bitten deeply into their limited resources.

The small
house was rented, and was theirs for a few weeks longer, but then they would
have to seek alternative accommodation, and it would have to be with Lord
Thurston, the Duke of Lenster. She shivered at the thought of approaching the
man who had cast off her mother when she had refused to marry the suitor he had
selected for her and chosen instead to marry her childhood sweetheart, the
dashing army captain, who had become her father, Major Charles Carstairs.

Charlotte
recalled the terrible time two years ago when Papa had returned from the Battle
of Waterloo grievously wounded. He had lingered on, in agony, before finally
succumbing to his injuries a year ago. She had had only Annie and Betty to turn
to for advice. It would be unfitting to discuss such matters with the staff so
she had made the decision to write to her grandfather herself. The letter had
been returned opened but with no reply. From that moment she had formed an
implacable hatred for her the man who had rejected his only child for the
second time. Now she had promised to take the children to live with him.

This would
not do. She had responsibilities. Whatever her own feelings, when matters were
concluded here, she had to travel to Thurston Hall. She had given her word.

However,
she
would not stay there; she was
determined to find a position as a housekeeper, or maybe a companion. As soon
as the children were comfortable she would depart, knowing she had fulfilled
her mother’s deathbed request. At nineteen she was quite old enough to fend for
herself. She was an accomplished seamstress, indeed, made all the family’s
clothes and she could cook, clean, and manage a household. The fact that the
duke would now be her legal guardian couldn’t be helped.

She would be
considered too young for employment as a governess but prayed she might find a
more menial position somewhere in the ranks of the wealthy trades people. Maybe
one of them might be glad to employ a gentlewoman such as herself.

Upstairs she
discovered her siblings. Beth was cradling her brother, rocking back and forth,
as they both cried. ‘Come along, Beth, that will do,’ Charlotte admonished her
gently. ‘You’re not helping. We must be strong. Harry is too small to
understand.’

The small boy
raised his tear-streaked face. ‘I’m not small, I’m a big boy,
I’m
four years old!’

‘You are, my
love. And big boys don’t cry
,
they are brave and
strong.’ She bent down pulling the children to their feet. ‘We must look to the
future, Mama is happy now with Papa in heaven.’ She removed a linen
handkerchief from the pocket in her skirt and dried her brother’s eyes. ‘There
now, Harry, no more tears, we promised Mama we would be happy for her, not
sad.’ It took all her self-control to keep her voice from wobbling.

Beth slipped
a small hand into hers and she was grateful for the contact. ‘It’s a fine day
and I propose we go out for a walk. There are brambles ready to be picked in
the lane.’ Their two faces turned up trustingly to her. ‘Shall we take baskets
and pick some? Then we can ask Betty to make us a delicious bramble and apple
tart for supper tonight.’

Harry beamed.
‘That’s my very best thing. Will Betty give me a basket if I run to the
kitchen?’

Charlotte’s
smile slipped at the reminder of what duties the cook was at that very moment
performing. ‘No darling, we shall put on boots, then find your jacket and our
cloaks, and collect the baskets on our way out.’

 

Three weeks
later, at seven o’clock, Charlotte closed the door on the house in which she
had spent the last five years and led her small party down the steps to the
waiting diligence.


Mornin
’, Miss Carstairs. A lovely day for a journey,’ Mr
Turner, the carter, called as he waited reins in hand, to depart. ‘Your trunks
are all safely stowed.’

‘Thank you,
Mr Turner; I am sorry we have kept you waiting.’ Charlotte lifted Harry into
the vehicle and offered her hand to Beth, who ignored it and scrambled up
unaided. ‘Annie, can you and Betty manage the bags or do you need Mr Turner’s
assistance?’

‘Bless
you,
we can manage fine, thank you, miss. You get yourselves
settled; Betty and I can take care of these.’

Glad both
Annie and Betty had decided to take their chances with them at Thurston Hall,
Charlotte climbed into the cart. Harry and Beth shifted up the hard wooden seat
to make room for her. Once Annie and Betty were safely aboard, seated next to
Mr Turner, he slapped the reins and the large brown horse ambled forward.

‘Is it far to
the White Hart, Lottie?’ Harry asked between bounces.

She righted
her bonnet before answering.
‘A mile, no more.
I have
allowed ample time to reach our destination. The mail coach does not depart
until twelve minutes past nine.’

Beth chimed
in. ‘Is Thurston Hall a long way from Ipswich, Lottie? Will grandfather send a
carriage for us, do you think?’

Charlotte
hated to lie to them but she had no choice. ‘Thurston Hall is less than five
miles from Ipswich, where we alight from the mail coach tomorrow, and I am sure
grandfather will have made some arrangement to transport all of us to our new
home.’

She couldn’t
tell any of them that Lord Thurston was not even aware of their imminent
arrival. She had decided it would be better to give him no opportunity to
refuse to take them in.

It would be
much harder to send them packing if they were already on his doorstep.

By the time
they arrived in Ipswich and descended, for the last time, from the mail coach,
the children were fractious and she was exhausted. Charlotte checked the time
on the large clock in the vestibule of the inn. ‘It’s too late to travel to
Thurston today. We shall overnight here and set out, refreshed and tidy,
tomorrow morning.’

Luckily there
was a commodious front room available which housed two tester beds and still
had room left over for a table and chairs in the bay window. Trays were sent
up, stacked high with cold meats, pickles and pastries, also several slices of
a rich plum cake.

‘This looks
appetising, children, doesn’t it? We shall eat and then you must both go to
bed.’ She pointed to the largest four
poster
. ‘See, we
shall all sleep together.’ Charlotte yawned widely. ‘And I believe the rest of
us will not be long behind you’

Annie nodded.
‘We’re all that tired, Miss Beth; we’ve been jolted around in a mail coach for
the best part of two days and it’s an exhausting business, especially for
someone of my age.’

Charlotte
attempted to shake out the creases in her travelling dress. ‘Annie, if you and
Betty will see to the children, I have business to attend to downstairs.’

‘Yes, miss.
Shall I wash them this evening?’

‘No, Annie,
leave it until the morning. After all, it’s not us who will be obliged to wash
the bed linen.’ She turned to Beth, barely awake. ‘I’ll not be long, my love;
be a good girl and go straight to bed. You must be fresh to meet grandfather
tomorrow, mustn’t you?’ The child nodded, too tired to argue. Harry was already
asleep.

Downstairs
the vestibule was empty, no one behind the desk. Charlotte rang the bell
vigorously. The passengers from the mail coach, who were continuing their
journey to Norwich, had long since departed. The landlady bustled through from
a back room, wiping her work roughened hands on her apron.

‘Miss
Carstairs, I
hopes
as nothing’s wrong?’

‘No, Mrs
Brady, the room is perfect and the food was excellent. It is another matter
entirely that I wish to discuss with you.’

‘Yes, Miss
Carstairs, I’ll do what I can to help.’

‘I shall
require transport of some sort tomorrow morning to convey us to our final
destination. Can you arrange that for me?’

Mrs Brady
nodded her many chins wobbling. ‘Indeed I can. We have a suitable conveyance
here. My son, Jack, can drive you anywhere you wish to go. What time will you
be wishing to leave?’

Charlotte
thought for a moment. It would not do to arrive too early, Lord Thurston was an
elderly gentleman and he might not rise before noon. She had checked and knew
the village of Thurston to be a journey of less than five miles; not much more
than an hour or so even on narrow rutted lanes. ‘I don’t wish to leave until
eleven o’clock. It’s my intention to look around the town before we leave.’

‘Very well,
miss. What time shall I have your trays sent up tomorrow morning?’

‘Could you
send up several jugs of hot water at eight o’clock? Then we shall break our
fast at nine.’

The landlady
nodded and bobbed a curtsy ‘If you require anything else, just ring the bell in
your chamber, Miss Carstairs.’

‘Goodnight,
Mrs Brady, thank you for your help.’

 

At eleven
o’clock sharp Charlotte escorted her brother and sister downstairs. They were
all dressed in their best. Harry, in smart royal-blue nankeen britches and
jacket, his shirt white and his stockings, pulled up for once, pristine in his
black shiny boots. Beth had her hair in one thick braid, green ribbons threaded
through
it,
her dress was moss green cotton and her
spencer in a darker shade of that same colour. This had been embroidered by her
sister, with a riot of flowers and birds.

‘You look
very smart, Harry. Please try not to get any grime on your shirt or stockings
on the journey,’ Charlotte told her little brother.

‘Promise,
Lottie,’ he grinned as he spoke; the excitement of the journey had already
overtaken the grief for his mother.

Beth reached
out and ran her fingers down her sister’s skirt of fine French cambric, in a
becoming shade of palest gold. ‘This gown is so beautiful, Lottie. I wish Mama
could see you now.’

Charlotte’s
eyes filled but she pinned a smile on her face. ‘Thank you, darling. I’m glad
you approve. I’m particularly fond of the darker gold material from which I
made the spencer, and of my chip-straw bonnet. It took me hours to pleat the
matching material that lines it.’ She glanced down, confident they all looked
well turned out. Her brown half boots and York tan gloves set off her
ensemble
perfectly.

BOOK: The Duke's Challenge
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