Authors: Lynn Collum
The Long Road to Love
Copyright ©20I4 by Jerry L. Smith
Second Edition 20I4
ISBN: 978-0-9909402-1-0 epub
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.
“‘Er’s tryin’ to poison me, Ma.” The eight-year-old boy eyed the young miss with suspicion as he sniffed the elixir in the small flask.
“Joseph Brown, I’ll box ye ears if ye don’t take a drink of that potion this very minute. Why, Miss Markham fixed it specially to make ye well and ‘ere ye go saying it’s poison.” Mrs. Brown shook her finger at the child whose dark eyes had grown wide at his mother’s admonition.
Miss Angelica Markham’s soft laughter filled the small cottage. “I promise you shall not be poisoned, Joe. I even added a bit of honey to make it go down easier.”
Joe looked doubtful, but turned the flask up and took a gulp, then shuddered from head to toe. “Tastes like muck, it does--sweet muck, but muck just the same.”
Angelica smiled. “Very likely, dear boy, but you’ll be feeling better in no time.”
Mrs. Brown planted her fists on ample hips. “And what say ye to Miss Markham for comin’ all the way from Edenfield Park to bring ye that cure, ye grouchy whelp?”
Properly chastised, the boy hung his head and meekly said, “I’m right thankful, miss.”
Taking the bottle from her son as he bid the visitor goodbye, the mother placed the stopper back in place.
“Miss Markham, I must tell ye that all the tenants at Blackstone Abbey appreciate ye lookin’ after us, what with the dowager residing in Bath year round.”
Angelica moved to the door of the cottage, drawing on her lace gloves. “I am happy to help in any way I can, Mrs. Brown. Should Joe continue to feel poorly, send word and I shall try another herbal that is a bit stronger.”
Joe, hearing the possibility of a new and likely viler potion, called, “I’m feelin’ better already, miss.”
Angelica exchanged a smile with Mrs. Brown, who opened the door for the young lady and then followed her out into the warm afternoon sunshine. Miss Markham’s maid, waiting on a bench by the door, rose at the sight of her mistress. The farmer’s wife glanced around for a carriage. “Why, miss, don’t say ye come all this way on foot. Shall I get Mr. Brown to ‘itch up old Rose to the cart and take ye back?”
Angelica felt her cheeks warm. She didn’t want to tell Mrs. Brown that she’d been relegated to walking now that her stepbrother had dispensed with all the horses at Edenfield save his own carriage horses. He’d deemed the others an expense he could ill afford.
“You are too kind, Mrs. Brown, but Jenny and I enjoy walking.”
“Then I’ll say bless ye for comin’, and I’ll be certain to tell Lord Blackstone of your kindness to us all, should he stop by this afternoon.”
Angelica’s brows drew together in puzzlement. The earl being in residence at the manor in August was rare indeed.
“I had not heard his lordship was returned. Is this not rather early for him?”
Mrs. Brown, misinterpreting the look as one of worry, glanced back over her shoulder, then in a lowered voice said, “Aye, ‘tis early, but don’t be worryin’ that ‘e’s brought along a carriage full of fancy ladybirds like on ‘is last visits. All alone the gentleman is, so no need to worry about getting ‘ome without seein’ such a sight. ‘Tis frightful the way ‘is lordship behaves, for a nicer young lad there never was.”
Nodding, Angelica said her goodbyes. She and Jenny started the long trek back to Edenfield Park in silence. Her mind continued to dwell on Mrs. Brown’s comments about Lord Blackstone.
For her own part, Angelica subscribed to the theory that Richard had succeeded to his title and fortune at far too young an age, making him susceptible to all the wrong elements without the guiding hand of his father. He’d become wild and reckless engaging in every kind of excess.
Her late mother had declared that he would eventually outgrow such behavior, but there had been no end to the rumors making the rounds of the neighborhood.
Angelica preferred to remember Richard as the carefree young man who’d allowed a hoydenish child to tag along when he went fishing or hunting during his summers at home from school. She wasn’t acquainted with the gentleman who’d become perhaps one of the most notorious rakes of the
. If even half the rumors were true, she wasn’t certain she wanted to know Richard as he’d become. Dismissing the renowned rakehell from her mind, she engaged Jenny in small talk about her family.
Nearly an hour passed before the women arrived at the door of Edenfield, hot and dusty after their long walk from the Browns’ cottage in the heavy August heat. As Angelica stepped into the cool darkness of the hall, Finch, the butler, ambled forward as fast as his stooped condition would allow. The fellow should have been pensioned off years ago, but he preferred to continue working and Giles had been happy to save the expense of paying for the man’s retirement.
“Ah, Miss Markham, you’re here at last. Miss Parks has been asking for you in the back parlor this past hour.”
Surrendering her hat and gloves, Angelica decided to see what Harriet wished before she went up to change. “Jenny, you may have the rest of the afternoon without duties.”
The young maid smiled, then curtsied and headed for the kitchen, ignoring the frown on the aged butler’s face.
Angelica regretted he would be left shorthanded without the servant girl. The household staff had been greatly reduced by her parsimonious stepbrother, but there could be little doubt that Jenny was as tired as she from their long walk.
Angelica requested tea, then went to the woman who acted as her companion. When she entered the small parlor she discovered Miss Parks pacing the worn carpet, wringing her talon-like hands with each step.
“Good afternoon, Cousin. What has put you in the boughs?”
Harriet Parks halted and gazed at Angelica with guilty brown eyes. The spinster was a plain, frail woman, who’d unfortunately been endowed with front teeth that protruded from her thin lips. Her father had gamed away his small fortune, leaving her at the mercy of relatives. She’d resided at Edenfield Park for nearly three years under the kindness of Lady Edenfield, however, with that lady’s death, her place was not so certain. Being no fool, Harriet knew that her security lay in doing whatever her young cousin Giles, Viscount Edenfield, wished. With him away, she perceived it her duty to remind everyone precisely what that gentleman’s wishes were.
“At last, you are here. Where have you been? A messenger arrived from Plymouth with a letter from your brother and you nowhere to be found,” Harriet snapped waspishly.
Her tone was far different from the one she used with Giles, for she considered Miss Markham in no better straits than herself.
Angelica, fatigued from the long walk, settled in a nearby chair before she replied. “Stepbrother, dear Harriet. I went to take some medicine to Blackstone for young Joe Brown.”
“Blackstone! Why, the viscount would be furious to hear you walked all that way to render service to that libertine’s tenants. Thank God the earl is rarely to be found in the district or you might have found your reputation in tatters.”
Angelica brushed a speck of dust from her pale blue walking gown. She harbored a grain of satisfaction at delivering the news. “You are wrong, Harriet. The earl is returned. I believe Richard is likely having his tea at Blackstone Abbey even as we speak.”
“Tea! Ha, nothing so proper has crossed his lips since he was a lad. And you are foolish to be calling one of such poor reputation by his first name. You’ll be having people think you know him intimately.”
“Good heavens, Harriet. Did you never know that we grew up together? Richard and myself were often in company together when we were a good deal younger.” Angelica smiled as the memory of those idyllic summer days returned.
Harriet sniffed, then took a seat opposite. “No doubt Giles was there to properly supervise.”
Angelica merely continued to smile. She didn’t wish to bother disabusing the woman of the mistaken impression that her stepbrother had ever been welcomed at Blackstone Abbey. Richard had had Giles’s measure even in his youth. “What is this urgent matter which necessitated a letter from my stepbrother? Is he not due to return on Friday?”
“Your brother brings Lord Paden with him on his return.”
Angelica raised one delicately arched black brow, but made no comment. It took all her efforts to resist a shudder. Baron Paden was a wealthy aging
. Too often over the past two years Angelica had found him leering at her since her stepbrother had taken to bringing him to the Park. During his last stay at Edenfield he’d announced he’d decided to set up his nursery and tossed out broad hints that Angelica might be the lucky lady of his choice. While the legacy which she would inherit from her father in October was small, it afforded her the ability to choose her own destiny, which would not include a coxcomb like Paden, she reflected.
At that moment, Finch entered with the tea tray, staying any comment Angelica might have made. After the butler left and the ladies served themselves, Harriet returned to the message from Lord Edenfield.
Stirring her tea distractedly, Miss Parks avoided Angelica’s gaze; then in a rush she announced, “As your guardian, and having only your best interest in mind, Giles accepted Lord Paden’s offer of marriage on your behalf. They arrive Friday with a Special License and the marriage shall take place on Saturday.”
Angelica returned her teacup to the tray so quickly tea spilled onto the silver surface. In contrast her voice was deadly calm. “Marry Lord Paden? Giles must have taken leave of his senses.”
Harriet blushed even as she pursued the unpleasant topic. “Don’t be foolish, my dear. Why, the man is rich as Croesus. With no fortune to speak of and being only passably pretty you could never hope to find such an excellent catch as Lord Paden.”
In truth, Miss Parks’ description of the young lady was far from the mark. Angelica Markham had inherited her mother’s violet blue eyes and raven curls which framed a delicate heart-shaped face. Her features were pleasing enough to attract the young gentlemen of the village, but her stepbrother’s churlish manners to those in the neighborhood kept any suitors from calling at Edenfield, leaving Harriet with the impression that Angelica’s fate would be similar to her own.
Angelica fought to control her anger at the thought that she could be bought. “Money counts for little when I consider marriage, Harriet.” She knew it was a radical idea in a society where a good marriage was the key to financial and social gains, but she would wed only for love. Her mother’s marriages had taught Angelica a valuable lesson.
The love-match with her father had been happy, while the marriage to the late Lord Edenfield for financial security had proved an extremely difficult experience for the gentle lady.
Harriet’s voice, edged with bitterness, announced, “That is because you have never known a true lack of funds, being always sheltered by your mother. You think your meager legacy will see you through, but you have no notion of the expenses of being on your own. I warn you, Angelica. You know Giles has ways to make you do his bidding.”
Angelica gazed down at her clenched fists. She well knew her stepbrother’s methods. He used her affection for the tenants and servants to bend her to his will, often threatening to turn off one or the other if she didn’t agree to his wishes.
Looking up she could see the anxiety in Harriet’s faded brown eyes, but there was something else there as well, a determination to protect her own position at Edenfield.
That meant the lady would see Giles’s wishes fulfilled.
Angelica couldn’t blame Harriet, for without her cousin’s support, the woman would be destitute.
Rising, Angelica walked slowly to the door, her mind in turmoil at her stepbrother’s newest betrayal. Upon reaching the portal, she paused, looking back at Harriet.
“I am too tired to think about this at the moment. I shall decide what I intend to do on the morrow.” So saying, she departed the room.
Harriet issued a sigh of relief. That hadn’t been so bad. Once Angelica gave the matter some thought, she would see that Lord Paden was likely not such a bad fellow. Sufficient funds went a long way to making a person more palatable. The spinster went and drew a sheet of paper from the small desk near the door. She began making a list of tasks to be accomplished before the wedding. It kept her from thinking about her role in forcing this marriage on Angelica and of the girl’s possible fate at the hands of the debauched baron.
Upstairs, Angelica paced the worn Oriental rug in her room. Despite being exhausted, she couldn’t stop thinking about what her stepbrother planned. This was no simple dispute about a proposed visit to London or whether she truly needed a new dress. This was a matter that would affect the rest of her life. She was certain that Paden had promised Giles something in return for her hand. Her stepbrother always managed to wring money out of every situation.
She would never agree to marry Lord Paden, and since Angelica knew that Giles would find a way to force her to bend to his will, the only option for her was to leave before he returned. But where would she go? She had no relatives except her stepbrother.
As she paced past the small mahogany secretaire where her mother’s herbal book lay open, she noted a slip of pink ribbon hanging from one of the small drawers. Distractedly, she pulled the drawer open and was about to push the ribbon inside when she spied the letters she kept bound by the strip. Pulling out the notes from her godmother, Angelica clutched them to her breast. Lady Longstreet in York was her only hope.