Authors: Sandra Lea Rice
SANDRA LEA RICE
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
SANDRA LEA RICE
Cover Design by Rae Monet, Inc.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, business establishments, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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For all the countless hours
you laid at my feet keeping them warm
while I worked and then read aloud to you,
but most of all, for your loyalty and companionship
for the eleven years I was blessed to have you.
I will cherish your memory always.
My heartfelt thanks and love to my family for all the encouragement you’ve given me throughout the years.
Thanks to all the amazing members of Central Ohio Fiction Writers for your support. You’re amazing.
Thanks to Don who allowed me the time to spread my wings and ‘go for it’.
And especially to Debby Gilbert of Soul Mate Publishing who believed in me.
1880 – Outside London, England
Lady Angeline Ashley glanced at her young brother, distressed by the blank stare in the blue eyes so like his mother’s. No child should appear this lost and bewildered.
The sounds of staff moving quietly through the halls of Ashley Manor, their voices no more than a whisper, added to the realization that her father and stepmother were dead. Misery, so acute it was a physical pain, took up residence around her heart.
Eleven years ago, she’d had to cope with the death of her mother. She’d done the best a nine-year-old could do. Her efforts had been sufficient to help her father through those trying times. Now, with so many dependent on her for guidance, she determined no one would know how bereft and desolate she felt. She had managed then, and she would manage now.
Angeline swallowed the despair lodged in her throat. As she faced the man before her, she hoped the disgust she felt didn’t show on her face.
“What proof do you have of your claim, Sir Malcolm?” When she held out her hand, she noticed its slight tremor. So did he. The corners of his mouth lifted in what was supposed to pass as a smile. She’d heard he derived pleasure from frightening helpless women. Frightened she may be, but she was far from helpless. Angeline swung her gaze to her brother and dropped her hand.
“Mr. Mansfield?” Angeline summoned.
The butler appeared instantly. He’d obviously been just outside the door, most likely with the rest of the staff.
“Yes, my lady?”
“Please take Jimmy and see that he has a snack before his nap.”
“Yes, miss. Come along, Master James.” Mansfield led the child from the room.
Angeline met Charles Malcolm’s gaze with a direct and steady stare. “You do me an extreme dishonor, Sir Malcolm, in coming to me at this time and for such a reason. If there is a debt, I will see proof of it now.”
Malcolm’s eyes narrowed. A thin, white line formed around his pinched lips. “Watch your tone with me. I do not tolerate disobedience from any woman.”
She raised her chin in a slight gesture of defiance. “If that is all you have to say, you may leave now.”
all I have to say. I have a note, signed by Lady Elizabeth Ashley, for quite a considerable sum of money.”
“So you’ve said.” She was relieved her voice did not tremble.
“I’m afraid your stepmother was not very good at cards. To keep Longhaven from finding out the extent of her loss, and to spare your family’s good name, I accepted the note in lieu of default of payment.” Malcolm thrust the paper at her with a smirk.
“We will, of course, honor the note and pay you the money owed.” Angeline took the sheet of paper and read the amount indicated. “This—this cannot be,” she gasped.
“I assure you the bill is all perfectly legal.” Malcolm snatched the promissory note from her hand, folded it, and stuffed it back in his pocket.
“I will need to speak to my father’s man of business, but—”
“That won’t be necessary, my dear. In exchange for payment, Lady Longhaven granted me permission to seek your hand in marriage.” His eyes glinted as he watched her.
Angeline drew in a deep breath, said as firmly as she could, “No. She did not have the right to do such a thing.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not.” Malcolm shrugged a shoulder.
She tried again. “Given time—”
“But, my dear, it isn’t the money I want.” His gaze traveled offensively over her.
Suddenly nauseated, she clasped her hands together and pressed them tightly against her stomach. “I will never marry you. What you offer is a life better lived in purgatory. Do you think I haven’t heard of your crimes against other women? We are not so far out in the country that word of your . . . depravities, has not reached us.”
Malcolm’s eyes flared, his face flushed scarlet. Grabbing her arm above the elbow, he squeezed, then leaned toward her and hissed, “Of course you may refuse, but I would advise you to reconsider.” He eased back and squeezed again. “Would you drag your brother’s name, and that of your late father, through the courts? And if you were unable to pay, your father’s name would be besmirched, and the disgrace would follow James.”
With a little shove, he let go of her arm and straightened, running his fingers over his well-trimmed goatee. “You have two months, no more, and then we shall marry by special license. Good day to you.” Without a backward glance, he spun on his heel and left the room.
With a shuddering sigh, Angeline grabbed for the back of a chair to steady herself and felt the oh-so-familiar arms of her old nanny encircle her.
“There, there, miss. It’ll be all right,” Mrs. Bunnington crooned, helping her to sit.
“You heard? Yes, of course you did. He’s such a horrible man, Bunny.” Angeline rubbed her arm where he’d clasped her, and felt panic rise. There was no father, no man to protect her.
“There’s bound to be a way out of this. Now go on up to your room and I’ll bring some lavender water for your forehead and a nice cup of hot tea. You’ll feel better with a bit of a rest.” Bunny spoke with the familiarity of years of service.
Angeline rose. “Please ask Mr. Mansfield to send a footman with a message to Mr. Thornby. I need to speak to Father’s solicitor.”
As the sun dropped lower in the afternoon sky, Angeline stared at the newly placed headstones. The heavy scent of freshly turned earth filled her nostrils.
William Stephen Ashley, Lord Longhaven. 1834 – 1880. Beloved Husband and Father.
A trivial epitaph for the wonderful man who now lay beneath the mounded dirt. Her gaze moved to the headstone beside it.
Elizabeth Spencer Ashley, Wife of
William & Mother of James. Rest in Peace
“Oh, Elizabeth, how could you do this?” she whispered, folding her arms tightly across her chest. She tilted her head to read the cryptic dedication on her mother’s stone.
Franchesca Ashley, My Beloved. With My Heart and My Love I Thee Promise.
Feeling a slight tug on her skirt, she peered down into a pair of frightened blue eyes.
Jimmy’s lower lip trembled. “What will happen to us now, Angie?”
Angeline knelt and brushed the blond hair from his forehead. “We’ll be fine, sweetheart,” she offered reassuringly. “I know this is hard, but I promise everything will be all right.” She slipped an arm around him and hugged him tightly.
Dark, menacing clouds rolled above them. The sky flashed while thunder boomed and the ground shook as if it, too, railed bitterly at the injustice. Taking Jimmy by the hand, she led him back inside.
Bunny, her gray hair tucked securely under the familiar white cap, hurried to meet them. “You two near sent me into a tizzy, what with the weather turning and all.” Although she scolded, a smile belied her words.
Angeline sank gratefully into a chair near the fire and leaned her head back. “Would you please assure that Jimmy eats something before he goes to sleep?” For the last few years, she’d been the one to see her brother tucked safely into bed. Elizabeth had always been too busy.
“Of course, miss.” Bunny hesitated before adding, “My lady?”
“Yes?” Her body felt leaden with lack of sleep, and she found it hard to concentrate.
“Why don’t I have the maids prepare a nice, hot bath and Cook can make up a tray?”
“That sounds lovely.” Angeline wanted nothing more than to climb into bed and pray that when she awoke, this would all be just some bad dream.
“Good. Come along, Master James.” Bunny patted his cheek.
Angeline took a deep breath and considered the room. Memories, both sweet and sad, were everywhere. She blinked away the tears and came to her feet. There would be time to cry later. For now, too many things needed her attention.
In the three days since her father’s death, she’d not ventured into his study. That room, more than anywhere else in the house, was reminiscent of the many happy hours spent together. She pushed open the door and stepped inside, shutting it quietly behind her. The study appeared much as it always had. By rights, the room should be in shambles.
As usual, the lamps had been lit. She let her gaze travel slowly over the rows of leather-bound tomes and smaller books lining the wooden shelves, many of which they’d read together.
Angeline trailed her fingers over the polished surface of the large, mahogany desk, then sank into the padded chair behind it. A pipe lay on a silver tray, a gift for her father last Christmas. Lifting it to her nose, she caught the lingering scent of his favorite cherry tobacco.
As she laid the pipe back on the tray, she noticed an envelope with her name scrawled across the front in her father’s bold handwriting. Carefully breaking the seal, she withdrew the heavy, white paper and began to read.
My Dearest Angeline,
When you read this I will be gone and you will be without my protection. It would seem I failed you in this, as I fear I have in so many other ways. But I had a promise to keep to your mother. Although having you remain at Ashley Manor seemed the safest thing to do, I wonder now if I did you an injustice.
There are things you should know, knowledge withheld in the belief it was best. Search for the truth, Angeline. It has been said, ‘The truth shall set you free,’ and in this case I believe it shall. I should have seen to what you needed, but I thought there would be more time. For that, I am truly sorry.
At the same time I wrote this letter, I sent one to the Earl of Windsford. As Elizabeth’s brother, he is now James’ legal guardian. He will teach James what he must know to one day take his rightful place among his peers.
Windsford is a good man, and will help you find your answers if you but trust him.
God be with you, and I will always remain your loving father.
William Ashley, Lord Longhaven
A light knock at the study door drew her attention. “Come in.”
Mansfield entered quietly. “A note has been dispatched to Mr. Thornby as you requested. Is there anything else you require, my lady?”
Angeline responded slowly. “No thank you. I suppose it will be tomorrow before we should expect him?”
“Then you may lock up the house and retire, Mr. Mansfield. This has been very stressful on all of us.”
“Indeed it has, my lady.” He bowed and withdrew, closing the door softly behind him.
Carefully refolding the letter, she placed it and the envelope back in the desk drawer. What had Father meant by
More alarming was his edict to
search for the truth
She’d considered asking Edward Thornby how best to protect herself from Charles Malcolm, but it seemed her father had provided her with the answer. Angeline’s thoughts turned to Adrian Spencer as they had so many times throughout the past years.