Beautiful, blonde Vanessa Tarleton dares to accept a position repairing tapestries for the Earl of Stone, knowing full well his reputation as a handsome rake. She had heard gossip about him during her London season but, when her father gambles everything away, she knows the offer is too good to reject. Nicholas, Lord Stone faces his own dilemma. He must wed an heiress to restore his nearly bankrupt property and keep a promise he made to his grandfather, but is the beautiful and wealthy Mrs. Hewit the right choice? Although forewarned about the dangerously attractive earl, is Vanessa able to resist his charm?
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"Do you think she will do it? She is a Lady of Quality, after all." Lord Stone slowly paced the oak floor of his library, about the only room in the ancestral pile of stones that was not in some stage of renovation. "You're certain she is the right one, the woman I want?"
Robert Millbank, the Earl of Stone's steward and longtime friend, murmured his assurance. It was rare for Millbank to see his lordship's face set in such a deep frown. He was usually a man of decisive action, not one given to weighing a conclusion once reached. He sighed. Still, one did not usually offer the position Lord Stone could at last afford to fill to a young Lady of Quality.
At Millbank's sigh, Nicholas Leighton turned to give him an appraising look, then nodded in understanding. "It has been a hard road, hasn't it? I confess there have been times when I thought the demands of the cent-per-centers would defeat us." He ran a tanned masculine hand through the tumbled brown curls that graced his well-shaped head, putting them into further disorder. He had never been a vain man, nor drawn to the airs of the town dandy or the magnificence of the Corinthian.
Oh, he had done well enough on his own in London. But that was before he'd unexpectedly inherited, and was forced to take control of, a nearly bankrupt estate in the far reaches of Yorkshire. Now he had neither time, nor inclination, nor funds. A man of immense common sense, he had a priority list, and the woman was next.
"What is her name again? I will not have just anyone, you know. After all, she will be living here. I must consider her influence on Juliana."
Millbank attempted to keep a stone face at that remark, and failed,cracking a hint of a smile. "She is noted to be the very model of propriety. From what my cousin writes, she could have been the inspiration for the word 'proper.'"
Lord Stone's midnight-blue eyes flashed in unusual asperity. Gads, the chit wasn't here and she was already sounding like someone he wouldn't want around. Still, her credentials were impeccable. "Your cousin believes it is but a matter of time?"
"Her father is a shocking wastrel. Finances, estate, both are in sad condition. Were it not for the attempts by this lady, everything would have gone long since. I imagine her aunt may offer to help, but my cousin writes that the woman is the worst sort of dragon. Your offer ought to be most providential for the young woman."
"Yes, well, I expect you had better write and tell your cousin to make the offer on my behalf. You know the sum we discussed ... all the details. I want her as soon as she can come. Her name, Millbank. What is her name again?"
"Miss Vanessa Tarleton."
As Millbank began to write the letter he would send express to his cousin far away in Wiltshire, Lord Stone walked to the window. He stared at the low scudding clouds that tumbled across the sky. Things were coming together at last. It was like reaching the end of a long dark night. Still, he could not rest easy until he had fulfilled his promise to his grandfather with regard to his "jewels on the wall." With the coming of Miss Tarleton, that promise would be well on its way to fruition. And Lord Nicholas Leighton, the Earl of Stone, always kept his promises.
"Really, Vanessa, I don't know why you must neglect me on such a horrid, rainy day. You know I must have the fire just so--I am certain I can smell smoke. My tea must be all of ten minutes late and my shawl has slipped from where you placed it. Really, my dear."
The querulous voice of her delicate mother stirred Vanessa from her concerned inspection of the rain-soaked grounds beyond the house. Indeed, it seemed the rain had never fallen quite so hard, nor for so long a time.
The slender blond with a worried expression in her blue eyes released the pale pink silk damask draperies, a luxury her mother had insisted upon a few years past. Turning, she walked sedately from the tall bay window of the south salon to the fireplace, her faded muslin skirts flowing gently about her neatly proportioned figure. Though a dutiful daughter, she felt frustrated at the demands of her mother and aunt. Her father's arrival wouldn't help. He created more problems than he solved.
As she approached, she could see everything was just as it should be, the wood burning brightly, not smoking in the least. She leaned one slim hand against the great carved oak chimneypiece. Making a pretense of studying the fire, she cast an oblique look at her mother. Vanessa took pains to conceal her concern over the weather from her mother and Aunt Agatha, lest her worries upset them further.
Sighing, she moved to placate her mother for the lack of attention in the past half-hour. "The fire looks well enough to me, Mama, but I will have the footman place another log on for you." Her soft voice betrayed no hint of the impatience or annoyance that beset her more and more. Were it not for the promise of release in the shape of her marriage to Baron Chudleigh, she would despair. She adjusted the Norwich shawl over her mother's thin shoulders. A sound at the door caught her attention.
Danvers entered precisely on time, bearing the silver tea tray. As was customary, he placed it upon the low walnut table near the sofa her mother favored, flicking a sympathetic glance at Vanessa before he left the room. Vanessa followed him to the threshold to softly request the footman bring more wood.
A derisive sniff heralded her Aunt Agatha's pronouncement from the opposite sofa, where her skirts were spread in regal display. "I do not know why you complain, Elinor. What else can one expect from a daughter whose standards are not of the highest order? How you can tolerate her taking over your proper position is more than I can comprehend. In my day, young women knew their place."
"If Vanessa visits the tenants on the estate, it is only to save me the effort, sister dear. You know my health will not permit anything so strenuous. In addition, I am persuaded her work with herbs under Mrs. Danvers' direction in the stillroom has been most beneficial. When Vanessa marries Baron Chudleigh come August, she will be well-trained to manage his household. Though I don't know how I am to do without her, I must say." The high, thin, plaintive voice ceased as tea and biscuits were consumed with an unladylike show of hunger.
In her words lay more than a hint of disappointment. Baroness Tarleton was not best pleased that Vanessa had managed to snare no greater prize than a mere baron during her London Season.
Vanessa closed her ears to the flow of complaints she had heard all too often and for far too long. As her mother frequently bemoaned, if only Colin had lived, how different things might have been. With an heir to consider, it was possible her father might have paid more attention to the estate. As it was, from the day they received news of Colin's death in the Battle of Talavera, her father seemed to lose all heart, and matters began to fail.
Her father, rarely joining his family in the best of times, now saw them even less. Vanessa heard the gossip, the tales of his gambling, his mistresses, the riotous living. While she attempted, with the help of William Hunt, their steward, to keep Blackwood Hall from tumbling into disaster, her father did his best to accomplish the opposite. And now it seemed he had succeeded.
Lady Tarleton waved a fragile blue-veined hand in the air with a dismissing gesture. "I cannot place the least credence on this missive from town. It is mere spite, I am certain. Who would be so cruel as to tell us that Tarleton has gambled away the estate while at cards? I refuse to believe it." Lady Tarleton sipped her tea, bit into her fourth biscuit. Her woeful sigh was heartfelt.
Compressing her lips a moment to still the words she longed to say, Vanessa bowed her head over the tea tray and poured a second cup of the finest bokea tea into her aunt's cup. The tea was by far the most expensive to be found. Her aunt insisted it was the only thing drinkable, mused Vanessa as she rose to return the cup to the lady with quiet grace.
Gently she offered, "Mr. Hunt said the letter is from Papa's solicitors. I fear we must accept our fate unless Papa has found the means to redeem the property." She did not add that it was highly unlikely such an event would occur. Her mother would have to face that truth soon enough.
Her eyes narrowed to a speculative slit, Agatha Cathcart mulled over the situation. "Vanessa could always take you in with her when she marries," she said to her sister, ignoring her niece even as she took the cup from her slender fingers. First caressing the triple strand of jet beads at her neck, she then smoothed the rich black watered silk of her gown. Though her husband had died but months after their wedding, Agatha had so enjoyed her status as a widow in deep mourning that she never left it.
She continued, assured of her audience, "It seems a pity Tarleton neglects you so, dear sister. I know the war forced prices to rise--quite shockingly, in fact, and something really ought to be done about the matter--but with proper management, things could have been better for you. Of course, you will always be welcome to live with me if worse comes to worst. Never let it be said I turned my own sister away from my door when she needed me. I shan't take in that wastrel husband of yours, however, so do not expect that of me. His morals are past redeeming."
Since joining the Society for the Reformation of Morals, Agatha considered herself an arbiter of what ought to be done in the world. Her lips moved spasmodically in what for her passed for a smile as she looked at Vanessa. Were her niece to come under her roof, that miss would play a different melody if Agatha Cathcart had her way. And she always did; she saw to that.
"There is always the chance the baron will cry off when he learns the news. It may be my dowry is gone as well." Vanessa's calm voice betrayed nothing of the tumult of inner emotions. She had learned never to betray an emotion nor to voice an opinion in her aunt's hearing. It was deemed unseemly for an unmarried woman.
Yet the words against her father, however justly deserved, made her burn with anger. What gave Aunt Agatha the right to be so critical? Vanessa sat, a rigid, carefully controlled figure in worn pale blue muslin, her soft blond curls severely confined at the nape of her neck. It was all she could manage to deal with her two relatives in a pleasant manner.
Her sea-blue eyes were troubled as she glanced once more out the tall windows to where the rain continued to fall in a heavy sheet. Her father was to travel this day from London. The roads would not be in best condition with all this rain. Perhaps he might stop until the weather improved, unless there was an element of time involved. She had heard of dispossessed owners having to vacate their homes with scarcely any notice.
Mr. Hunt said the settlement papers would be with her father; they would soon learn what was to happen. Naturally a gambler's debt of honor must be settled at once--never mind that it put a family out of their ancestral home. Her face masking her bitter thoughts, she feared for the future as she poured the tea and passed the biscuits.
Would Baron Chudleigh be willing to take her parents into his home after the marriage ceremony? She barely knew the man. It was a marriage arranged in proper fashion. She had met the baron at a ball ... they saw each other a number of times at various social gatherings ... he called on her with exquisite politeness. He had made the offer to her father, who accepted on her behalf, informing Vanessa of it later, after all had been arranged and negotiated. She hadn't been given the pleasure of accepting in person. That, her father had declared, was so much twaddle. Women, he was fond of pointing out, had no head for business. Her secret amusement at her coping, with Mr. Hunt's aid, with the affairs of the estate while her father gambled it away was a gentle irony not lost on her.
It was difficult to sit quietly attending the ladies when she would far rather be in the stillroom copying more herbal remedies or asking questions about household operations. If she must leave here soon, she might not have much time for such pursuits anymore. A sensation of helplessness assailed her, and she railed inwardly at the situation of women. She had done well to manage the matters her father ignored. Mr. Hunt could handle things only up to a certain point. The final decisions came from Vanessa. It was she who came up with the solutions to the problems that daily rose to face the household. It was like being on a sled headed downhill toward a bottomless pond.
It had been difficult having Aunt Agatha with them these past months. For all the money the old lady supposedly had at her disposal, Vanessa saw no evidence of it as far as helping out with the added expense her stay entailed. Agatha was fully aware of their straightened circumstances, yet she insisted on the best of everything for herself. Vanessa had decided only that morning that, like it or no, Aunt Agatha must either pay for what Vanessa considered extravagances or do without them. The finest bokea tea and sandalwood soap were only two of a long list of luxuries Agatha demanded.
A soft rap at the door brought all three heads around. Vanessa bade the footman enter, noting his pale face, his nervousness. Not that Aunt Agatha wasn't enough to make the servants quake in their shoes, but his reactions did seem excessive.
"Yes?" He had undoubtedly come to attend to the fire, though no wood was in evidence. She motioned him closer, smiling kindly to reassure the poor young man.
Agatha's sniff was ignored as the distressed footman came toward Vanessa. "Please, Miss Vanessa. Danvers says could you come with me downstairs straightaway?"
Aware of both her aunt's disapproval and her mother's total disinterest in any problems that didn't directly affect her, Vanessa nodded. Rising gracefully from the sofa, she spoke in low tones to the ladies. "I will tend to whatever it is. 'Tis undoubtedly a minor crisis of some sort, like Cook is again threatening to leave."
Even if it was to tend to a crisis, she felt a respite in hurrying from the room. Its overheated, stuffy air gave her the headache. Or her aunt did. Either way, she'd barely sipped her tea before she'd longed to flee the room.
The marvelous plasterwork ceiling and the exquisite tapestries she had carefully preserved caught her eye as she walked swiftly through the upper anteroom to the central hall. Those tapestries would now belong to someone else, she thought with a pang of sorrow. She hoped whoever got the house would appreciate all the beauty there.
Trailing her hand along the oak balustrade, she flicked a finger at one of the carved figures atop a newel post as she rounded a turn on her way to the ground floor. Across from her, the other half of the double flight of stairs rose in stately splendor to the upper stories, where her father's print room and her own turret bedroom were located in the west corner of the house. The house was as well-cared-for as she could manage on her minuscule housekeeping budget. But matters were coming to a head. The servants' pay was in arrears. The cook might very well leave for a better--and paying--position.
The double doors to the outer courtyard were open, and damp gusts of wind swirled in to cool the room. Vanessa shivered from the chill after being in the overheated south salon. Danvers stood with his back to her, looking out the doorway. Nearby, an eighteenth-century long-case clock chimed the hour. It was later than she thought. Tea tended to be a protracted event.
"Danvers, you sent for me?"
He turned, appearing worried and distracted. "Yes, miss. Mr. Hunt has gone with the men, but we felt you should be prepared first." He seemed to struggle for his words, a sight such as Vanessa had never seen before.
"What has happened?" The chill draft struck her as premonitory. She looked to the open door, noticing the heavy rain falling, splattering on the cobbled courtyard with vehemence unmatched in her memory.
At her apprehensive words, Danvers straightened, then said with awful finality, "His lordship's carriage has met with an accident on the road. I'm sorry to tell you he is dead, Miss Vanessa."
She stared a moment at the neat row of twenty-four fire buckets along the wall, then sank onto the oak settle close at hand. Her mind was in a whirl. Papa? Dead? This couldn't be true! But even as she formed the thought, a carriage was entering the courtyard with Mr. Hunt riding at its side. Though she seldom saw it, she recognized the carriage. Now it was splattered with mud, the damage evident. It stopped.
Ignoring the water streaming down his face, a groom opened the door. Dazed with shock, she rose, slowly walked to stand by the massive oak doorway as the body of her father was removed and brought into the house. He had been covered with a blanket, which she did not seek to remove. She backed away from the men as they passed, unwilling to reach out to touch the body, a near-stranger for all he was her father.
Vanessa felt numb. She ought to feel grief, not this sense of reprieve. Yet he had been her father and was due a daughter's respect. She shut her eyes a moment. How different this was from when word of Colin's death had reached her. How she had mourned her dearest brother. Unlike her father, Colin had been very close to her and she had loved him best of all her family. Since then, she had often felt as though she merely endured.
William Hunt followed, tossing a packet on the mahogany side table. He turned to the lovely girl who watched in utter silence, placing an arm about her, drawing her away from the door as the body was taken away into the small anteroom off the hall. He removed his hat, handing it to the distraught butler. Hunt's graying hair was flecked with rain, his brown eyes soft with pity. His shoulders drooped as he considered the days ahead. It was a sad state of affairs.
"He died instantly. There was no pain." Hunt urged Vanessa along to the brown drawing room, where a fitful fire burned low in the grate. He crossed to pour a small glass of brandy, then offered it to Vanessa, who stood staring out the window at the ever-falling rain. This was no time to faint, or have vapors, or do any other thing a woman of proper sensibility would do at such a happening. Vanessa knew she must contain her emotions yet again.
"Thank you, Mr. Hunt. I believe you have more need of restoring liquid than I do. I shall be quite all right. I only wonder how to tell my mother. She is so fragile, you know." Shoulders squared, chin up, she turned to face him, her eyes revealing nothing of her pain or her fears.
William Hunt searched the calm, beautiful face for signs of sarcasm. He found none. The kind, noble girl never spoke a word against that selfish mother of hers.
Vanessa continued, "She is upstairs now, having tea with my Aunt Agatha. There will be a funeral to arrange. Will you send for the vicar? I am persuaded he will deal with mother better than I could." Her eyes met his in a moment of shared understanding.
"One of the men has ridden off for him already, miss. Mrs. Danvers has supervised layings-out before--she will handle that. Do you want me to tell your mother?" He wasn't usually a coward, but facing Lady Tarleton at any time was not a thing to be relished.
"No, but come with me, please. I will tell her, and you can give me support if I need it." She left the window, crossing to the door, then stopped. "That packet? Have you had a chance to look at it? What news does it bring?"
"The new owner allows you some time to pack your personal belongings before you must leave. You may also take along things of a sentimental nature--within reason, of course." His anger that this innocent girl must now cope with the entire problem of the estate firmed his resolve to do what he could to ease her burden.
"So the letter was not false, as Mother claimed. I thought not. I wonder what she will do?" She climbed the stairs with dragging steps, crossed the upper hall to the anteroom, then went through to where the two ladies still sat, their teacups empty, the fire burning with cheerful heat.
Her mother glanced at Vanessa's stiff figure as she entered the room. Vanessa's hands were clenched before her in an unnatural position, her face unusually pale. Lady Tarleton broke off conversation with her sister. Her voice was sharp as she rapped out her question.
"What is it, Vanessa? I should think you could spare your poor mother the tribulations of the household. You know how overset I become at the least thing. My nerves simply are not up to what you could handle for me if you but chose."
Vanessa was undeterred. "This is not a small matter, Mama. It is your husband--"
Agatha's loud voice interrupted Vanessa. "And what of him? Found an excuse not to come down and face us, I'll wager." She rose from the sofa, an imposing figure in her black watered silk. Moving to stand near her sister, she wore an accusing expression on her face.
Vanessa walked slowly toward the two, her obvious reluctance to speak a puzzling thing. "There has been an accident, Mama. I fear Papa was killed while traveling down from London."
Lady Tarleton gasped. "That cannot be. He would not serve me such a turn! You are too cruel to torment me in this manner, Vanessa. Was ever a mother so poorly treated by her own?"
"What Miss Vanessa says is true, my lady," interjected William Hunt. "I have just now returned to the house from where the accident occurred, bringing his body with me." The steward concealed his distaste for the haughty lady next to her old dragon of a sister, Agatha Cathcart.
Lady Tarleton stared at Hunt with hostile, disbelieving eyes. His cool regard did not waver. Finally accepting what she'd heard, her ladyship swooned into an ungainly heap.
Vanessa turned to Hunt. "Best ring for her abigail."
While Hunt crossed to pull the bell cord, Vanessa knelt by her prostrate mother.
Agatha railed out, "I knew he would come to a bad end. Did I not say so earlier? Gaming brings no joy; London is full of evil ways. Elinor ought never have married that man. I told Father he would be no good."
Vanessa was scarcely able to hold her tongue. How she wished that for once she might speak her mind to this insensitive woman.
With the help of her abigail, Lady Tarleton was removed to her bed, with Agatha trailing behind, offering doleful comments, but no help at all.
The following days passed in a haze of fatigue for Vanessa. Aunt Agatha, for all her formidable pose, turned out to be useless in a crisis. Lady Tarleton was even worse. She swooned several times a day, leaving Vanessa to cope with everything that must be done.
The funeral was held, possessions were sorted and packed up. Aunt Agatha made good her offer to her sister and invited Elinor to live with her. She also made it plain Vanessa was welcome as well, though she would be expected to help manage the household. Vanessa correctly interpreted this to mean her aunt intended to install her as an unpaid housekeeper.
A note from Vanessa's betrothed, Chudleigh, had arrived shortly after Lord Tarleton's coach. Apparently as soon as word seeped out of the disastrous gaming loss, Lord Chudleigh had taken pen in hand to declare the wedding off--in excruciatingly polite terms, of course.
One gray day not long after the funeral, Mr. Hunt came upon Vanessa in the library, the one room she felt safe in occupying, as the sisters never read anything other than Agatha's tracts. It was not a pretentious room, for the past residents of Blackwood Hall had not been bookish men, nor inclined to spend their blunt on something they didn't use.
Rather it contained a modest number of volumes, haphazardly stacked on their sides on two tall sets of plain shelves. The attraction of the room lay in the quiet to be found within its oak-paneled walls. That was something neither of the two older ladies enjoyed, but which appealed immensely to Vanessa.
"What troubles you, Miss Vanessa?" asked Hunt.
When alone, they resorted to a familiar standing, rather like that of father and daughter.
She gave him a faintly ironic smile. "It seems I have one worry less, at least. I shan't have to bother with postponing the wedding. The baron decided we shall not suit. No doubt the loss of my dowry had more than a bit to do with his decision. Odd, I did not think he was so short of funds. Perhaps he finds a bride so completely without home and hearth beyond the pale. Then again, it may be the scandalous manner in which I was deprived of this home."
Her wish to spare Hunt the sad details no longer mattered. She flicked a dismissing finger at the stiff sheet of paper bearing the baron's signature. She had kept the paper to remind herself of Chudleigh's unworthiness, a salutary lesson, and a reminder--should she need one--of her new station. Her face wore a bemused expression, certainly not that of a woman torn from her love.
"Do you intend to live with your aunt?" Hunt watched her face intently as he asked his question. The letter from Yorkshire had arrived. It was burning a hole in his pocket while he waited for a suitable moment to speak.
Vanessa couldn't control a shudder at the mention of her aunt. "I know I ought to be grateful for her willingness to shelter us when we so desperately need help ... but, oh, how I wish I had somewhere else to go."
She turned to pace the floor. "As soon as she heard the news of Chudleigh, Aunt assured me she would be glad of my company. She then informed me that I would not be allowed to squander my time in 'frivolous pursuits.' What does she think I have done here, pray tell? I suppose she counts my harp playing as needless. No more embroidery, Hunt. I will be plying my needle on more useful items, turning sheets and the like."
The steward thought her slender loveliness seemed most unsuited to a life of drudgery. Surprised at her outspoken words, but pleased at the opportunity speak, he cleared his throat. "I may have a solution for you. I hope you do not mind, but I took it upon myself to make inquiries. My cousin works for Lord Nicholas Leighton, the Earl of Stone, up in Yorkshire. The earl has been slowly restoring his castle and is now in need of a skilled needlewoman. He does not want just any person, as the castle is remote; whoever works there must needs live there as well. My cousin estimates the work will take some months. You are highly proficient at needlework, especially in the mending of tapestries. No one could have done a better job on those hanging in the upper anteroom. Why not consider the position?"
He wouldn't press. He wouldn't need to. All he had to do was allow her to be around her aunt a bit longer, Hunt decided shrewdly. He was confident Vanessa would grasp any chance to be away from the old harridan.
"How good of you to concern yourself with my future. I shall miss you, dear friend. It pleases me that the new owner has seen fit to retain you to manage the estate. I will feel somewhat better, knowing this is all in your capable hands." She took another turn about the room, her face for once revealing her inner thoughts. "I must confess that the offer from the earl brings an opportunity I had not expected. I promise to consider it with care. Can you tell me a little of him?"
"I've not met him myself. My cousin writes that he has an agreeable disposition. He is a fair man to work for; the servants are devoted to him. You could do far worse. As much as I dislike seeing you take a position, it will surely be better than living with your aunt."
A soft scratching at the door brought a footman with a summons from the south drawing room: Vanessa' s aunt wished to speak with her at once. Vanessa glanced back at Hunt as she made a reluctant move to the stairway. "We will speak more about this later."
William Hunt nodded as he saw the black skirts whisk around the door and up the elaborate staircase. Poor girl. Her grace and beauty deserved a better future. He hoped so sweet and kind a young woman would accept a way out of her aunt's clutches.
Vanessa sobered as she entered the drawing room, determined to remain calm despite her aunt's selfish demands. Ignoring the exceedingly warm and stuffy air, she dipped a proper curtsy, inquiring, "You wished to speak with me, Aunt Agatha?"
"Your mother and I have decided you may as well dye all your dresses black. It is a waste of good money to bother with a dressmaker for new ones. Just get together with that Mrs. Danvers and fix up a pot of black dye. I daresay that by the time you finish a year of mourning there won't be a man found who wants a woman as near on the shelf or ridden with scandal as you, not to mention your total lack of any dowry. We three will deal together quite well. With a bit of tutoring, you will make a fine housekeeper, my dear."
Vanessa couldn't bring herself to meet those eyes. Either she would give away her own anger or she would wince at what she saw revealed in her aunt's gaze. "Dyeing fabric is not always successful. I will make an attempt. I cannot promise the results will be pleasing."
Dismissed from her aunt's august presence, Vanessa fumed her way to the west turret room that for the moment was hers. She went to her wardrobe, pulled out her most hated dress, then marched down to find Mrs. Danvers. It was her first act of rebellion.
Later, at the dining table, she meekly faced the ladies with the tale of dyeing fabric. "I fear it did not go well at all. It is possible we were sold inferior dye, but the dress fell completely apart, the fabric in tatters. I would hate to think of the rest of my clothes meeting the same fate. I shall simply wear the dresses we had made when Colin died."
Agatha exchanged a glance with her sister. "I fear that will not do. We have already decided that your mother will have those dresses. They are far more elegant than you will need, my dear. Perhaps my housekeeper has a dress that would be suitable for your new position in life. You are nearly of a size, I believe. The dress can be altered to fit. As I mentioned to you before, Mrs. Gates is due to retire. You are fortunate to have such a capable woman to train you."
Not trusting herself to speak, Vanessa finished her meal in silence. Every morsel was forced down a tight throat. She refused to permit Aunt Agatha to starve her as well as turn her into a servant.
She excused herself as quickly as she could, pleading the headache, which for once was no fabrication.
Hurrying up the stairs, she slipped into her room to undress and climb into bed unassisted. Agatha had assigned her maid to other duties.
Her sleep was troubled. Sometime during the night, she sat up in bed, her mind clear on what must be her path. She would go to Yorkshire. Surely her duty did not lie with her mother. That lady would be cosseted as much as she could wish by her sister. As for Aunt Agatha, Vanessa felt precious little obligation to move to her home and succumb to a life of drudgery and insults.
Vanessa's sleep was deeper, less troubled once she had made the decision to head north. She had had these middle-of-the-night revelations in the past, and always found them to be sound. The greatest loss she faced was her harp. Perhaps Hunt would allow her to store it here until she could send for it. It was the only thing she possessed that she desired to keep. The house and its contents had nothing but sad memories. No, she would set the past behind her. Perhaps while in Yorkshire she might find some means of creating a future that would not include Aunt Agatha. The prospect seemed most enticing.