About the book
Winning what you want may cost you everything you love...
Persephone Sheridan guards precious cargo.
Her years as the caretaker of a comatose elderly noblewoman had always been uneventful. Until the day Lady Humbertson woke and bestowed upon her a mission that was never meant to be her own.
With a title that he never wanted for himself, Silas Galashields, Earl of Dornham, bears the guilt of his brother’s death. When a stormy night brings a strange young woman right outside his door, he offers her shelter. Not realizing that he’s offering shelter to the darkness she carries with her.
Worlds apart and yet bound by the red thread of fate, they trudge the line between bliss and ruin.
When Persephone’s horse is found poisoned, the message is clear: the people she loves are next. Desperate to protect Silas from the shadow that follows her, she makes a grave decision: reveal the secret that Lady Humbertson entrusted to her. A bloody tale sealed in a scroll, older than the Crown itself...
Persephone’s morning did not begin in a pleasant fashion. She found herself rudely ripped from a lovely dream by the sounds of a crowing rooster.
One moment, she’d been running through a meadow alongside her mother and siblings, enjoying a beautiful summer’s day and the next—she was back in her own bed at Humbertson Manor. She stretched, sticking her arms and feet out from under her warm blanket—and instantly regretted the decision.
The freezing, drafty air of the English winter weather chilled her to the bone as she quickly pulled her limbs back under the blanket.
She pulled her legs up against her chest. She’d learned as a child that tucking yourself into a small, tight ball would keep you warm against the cold. One of many lessons she’d had to learn as the daughter of a family so poor they could not afford enough food to feed the entire family, let alone wood for heating.
The current Earl of Humbertson was, of course, not in as dire a financial situation as her family was. Indeed, when it came to money, he had no trouble at all. No, in his case the boot was on the other leg. As one of the richest lords in the region, he could easily afford to heat the entire mansion, he simply chose not to waste his guineas on wood for the servant’s quarters, even though some of the servant’s rooms had small fireplaces.
The only place to warm your frozen limbs was usually in the servant’s hall where the fire always roared.
It is fortunate for me that Lady Humbertson’s bedchamber is always heated and comfortable. I wish I could go there now. Alas, it is much too early. Poppy would be shocked to see me at this hour.
She rolled to her side and her gaze fell upon her friend’s bed, which was only a short distance from her own. Indeed, it was so close that if they both laid down and reached for one another, their hands would touch. They’d conducted this experiment some months ago, on a rare day they were both released from their duties.
Outside, the rooster crowed once more and she sighed. There would be no more sleep for her today.
Bracing herself for the freezing cold, Persephone threw her blanket back and rose out of the warmth of her bed, ready to face the day.
The fire roared in the hearth as Persephone entered the servant’s hall. She stood before it and warmed her hands as the kitchen and house maids rushed about her, attending to their chores.
“Penny, you have risen early!”
She turned at the sound of her nickname and saw Mrs. Stewart, the housekeeper, enter the room.
“The rooster,” she said by way of explanation. The older woman nodded.
“They had better fix the fence proper this time or His Lordship will get his bristles up.” She paused a moment and then pointed to a basket in the back.
“There’s mending to be done. You can attend to it down here by the fire if you like, instead of taking it to Lady Humbertson’s chamber.”
“Of course, Mrs. Stewart. I shall attend to it at once.”
Persephone walked over to the woven basket and carried it to the fire and began mending, one eye on the bank of bells that were located at the side of the door. There was an array of bells, one for each of the main rooms in the mansion. She knew that once the one marked “Lady Humbertson’s chamber” rang, Poppy would be ready for her to come up with the wash bucket.
She glanced into the kitchen, located across from the servant’s hall. She could see Lizzy, the kitchen maid, warming pots of water which would be carried up to the rooms of the occupants once they were ready for their morning toilet. However, it was early still and thus she focused on the task at hand.
In addition to her duties caring for the elderly Lady Humbertson, Persephone also carried out chores at the manor as needed. One of those chores was the mending of whatever needed done. This morning, among the many items in the basket, was a white silk vest belonging to Lord Humbertson. She’d need to take special care mending the small tear in the back of the garment, for His Lordship was known to be meticulous when it came to his wardrobe.
Mrs. Stewart appeared in a chatty mood this morning and took a seat next to her by the fire.
“Any change in her Ladyship?” Mrs. Stewart said as she rubbed her hands against the cold.
The woman shook her head, her eyes gazing into the flickering flames.
“It is such a tragedy. I cannot imagine spending all of my days in such a manner, awake and yet asleep. Eyes open, yet unaware of all that is around me and confined to my bed.”
“On occasion, Poppy and I take the Countess out of her bed and let her sit by the window. I think she likes that.”
The two women looked at one another, a sad silence passing between them. Persephone did not often stop to consider the plight of the Dowager Countess of Humbertson. She simply did her best to ensure the lady was taken care of. She did not find that it served her well to think of the sad state of the Lady’s life.
She’d been Lady Humbertson’s caretaker for almost three years now. Yet she’d never heard her speak, or seen her move, or even blink without being commanded to do so.
I remember the first time I saw her. Lying so still upon her bed, her face turned to the window, her eyes open and yet unseeing. I thought she was just gazing into the garden until I learned that this is how she spends all of her days.
Lady Humbertson had been in this state for many years. She’d fallen into this silent stupor shortly after the death of her son and had never come out of it. Like a large doll she sat in her bed, or on her chair and stared. She did not respond when spoken to, or do much of anything unless assisted. It was as if she was already dead but had not departed this realm yet. It was up to Persephone and Poppy to ensure all of her needs were met. They fed and dressed her, washed her and helped her to the chamber pot several times a day.
Persephone turned to Mrs. Stewart. “Did you know her before she was asleep?”
The woman shook her head. “I did not. I arrived the year after. I believe the only one who knows her from before is Mr. Benson.”
Mr. Benson, the butler, was a kind older man. Spry and strong built, you would never know he was over forty already if not for the sprinkles of grey among his dark hair. He’d been at Humbertson Manor for so long it did not surprise Persephone he’d known the Countess in her former life.
“Perhaps one day she will wake again,” Mrs. Stewart said. ‘She did once before. Did you know?”
Persephone raised one eyebrow in surprise.
“I did not know.”
“I believe it was years ago now. Of course, I do not know if it is entirely true. Her maid at the time, Mable, came rushing from the room, shouting for all the manor to hear that the Countess was awake. By the time Benson got to the room, the lady was still again and has been ever since.”
She shook her head. “Come to think of it, Mable may have just imagined it. She was ever so attached to the Countess—she knew her when she was awake, as well. She might have just been wishing it so much that she thought it came true when it did not.”
Mable. I know the name. She was the maid who worked alongside Poppy before I came. I replaced her, for she suddenly took ill and departed.
She had no time to discuss the state of Lady Humbertson further, for the bell rang, alerting her that the Countess was awake and Poppy ready for Persephone’s arrival.
With a sigh, she placed the Earl’s shirt back in the basket with the other mending and left the servant’s hall.
“Penny! Wait up. I will help you,” Mr. Benson called out behind her as she was about to make her way upstairs, the basket under her right arm and the jug of water for the Countess’s morning toilet in her left. The washball hung from a cord in front of her chest and bounced against her chest bone as she abruptly stopped.
The butler rushed toward her and took the basket from her.
“There, that is better. I shall take this and you carry the water.”
She smiled at him. He was a kind man, always helpful, not just to her but to the other servants, as well. She’d heard stories about butlers from other manor houses and they could at times be quite frightful to those that served, ruling the house with a stern fist.
She’d been lucky, all things considered. When she’d been offered the position to care for Lady Humbertson, years ago, she’d been scared. Scared to leave her home for the first time, scared to leave her parents behind. Yet, she had no other choice. She needed to work and support her family. Mr. Benson had been welcoming from the start, ensuring she was treated well and had all she needed. She had been, and still was, by far the youngest of the servants. Perhaps it inspired a fatherly feeling in him. In any case, she was grateful for it.
“I saw Her Ladyship last night. She appears well enough,” Mr. Benson said as they made their way to the third floor of the mansion. “I must say, she is receiving the most excellent of care by both you and Poppy.” There was a pause as he caught his breath. “Much more so than in the past.”
Persephone frowned. “I thought Mable was a very experienced carer, was she not?” Come to think of it, Persephone had never heard of any complaints against the woman.
“She was,” he said, a weariness in his voice. “Alas, not the most personable of creatures. She certainly would never be caught reading to her Ladyship as you do. But then, of course, she did not have any help for much of the time, not until Poppy arrived. Let me say that I am grateful you are here, as well as Poppy. I like to see her looked after well. She deserves it.”
They’d arrived on the third floor and made their way past the other bedrooms on the floor in silence, so as not to wake the Earl and family. They liked to sleep late, unlike Lady Humbertson, who always awoke at dawn.
Persephone knocked on the bedchamber door and opened it, holding on to the jug with one hand and pushing the door open with the other.
The room was bright with the rising sun coming through the window. Lady Humbertson was on her bed, propped up by an array of pillows that had been placed behind her. She was in her nightgown, waiting for Persephone to put her in a simple gown for the day.
“Good morning!” Poppy came out of the adjacent room which held the lady’s wardrobe and medical supplies. “Oh, Benson. I did not expect to see you here this morning!” She frowned at the butler who was presently placing the basket down on the table by the window.
“Just saw Persephone struggle with the water and the basket and thought I might be a gentleman and offer my assistance.”
The woman stood, hands on her hips, head cocked to one side.
“I see. I wish I were young and pretty to elicit such assistance. However, since you are here, perhaps you might be so kind as to take with you the laundry basket?” She nodded with her chin toward the pile of dirty sheets and already-worn clothes which sat by the window.
Persephone could not help but smile to herself at Poppy’s audacity. Nobody spoke to Mr. Benson in such a tone. As kind as he was, he was still the butler of the house. While the two engaged in bickering, she walked over to the bed and stood beside it.
“Good morning, Lady Humbertson. Have you rested well?”
The old woman sat and looked past her, out the window. Her blue eyes were glazed over, as if in a dream. Her hair, long and grey, flowed down her back but Persephone could already see tangles that would have to be removed soon. She was a small, light woman. Her skin was so fair it was almost transparent. Not surprising, given the lack of sunshine.
“She had a restful night. She woke only once to use the chamber pot,” Poppy replied in place of the still woman. Then she turned her attention to the butler once more. “Is there anything else we can assist you with this fine morning, Benson? Or do you just enjoy the company of three ladies so?”
The butler swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, and then shook his head, a glare in his eyes.
“You would do well to remember your position, Miss Benderson. I shall take my leave.” He walked the short distance between the door and Lady Humbertson’s bed and leaned over her, placing one hand on her shoulder.
“Be well, My Lady.” He leaned back. “Such a shame, such a dreadful shame.” He shook his head, brown eyes full of sorrow.
He turned and left, leaving the three women alone in the room.
Persephone was about to take the washball from around her neck when—
“Faith!” The word came out accompanied by a shriek as she jumped back.
“What is it?” Poppy came running around the bed, her auburn hair flying behind her.
Persephone could not speak, instead she stared. Stared down at her wrist. Her heart beat with fright as she saw the old woman’s icy cold hand wrapped around her wrist, and the blue eyes, formerly so vacant, stared at her with frightened urgency.
Silas dismounted his black mare and handed the reins to the groom who awaited him at the stable door.
“Silas!” A voice called out from behind him. As he turned, a grin spread across his face.
“Jordan!” His cousin sprinted toward him, light on his feet as always.
“You did not tell me you were riding out today! I would have accompanied you.”
Silas’ grin waned. Most days, he enjoyed his cousin’s company. Today, however, he’d not ridden out for amusement. He’d ridden out to… escape.
“I am sorry. I would have asked. Alas, today is not…”
“Zooks! I forgot entirely. I am sorry to have brought it up. Of course, you would want to be alone. If you like, I shall leave you to it.”
The expression on his cousin’s previously cheerful face was one of dismay at having forgotten the importance of the day.
It was on this day, twelve long years ago, that his parents had perished. They had gone to visit his father’s cousin in Dublin and returned home via ferry when their ferry encountered bad weather and sunk. Fifty people, his parents among them, drowned in the cold water that dreadful night, leaving him, his older brother, Louis, and his two younger sisters, orphans.
Silas shook his head. He did not blame him for not remembering. At twenty, Jordan was seven years younger than Silas. He’d been a mere child when the tragedy occurred. Having grown up in Scotland, it made him quite removed from the events that followed.
“It is quite all right. I would like the company. Perhaps a game of whist?”
His cousin pressed his lips into a thin line and studied him. Silas stepped from one foot to the other, uncomfortable with the way Jordan looked at him.
“I am fine, please. Do not fret. Now, whist or no?”
Finally, his cousin’s face relaxed and he nodded.
“Certainly. If you are ready to be beaten once again, cousin!”
“We shall see about that!” Silas slapped the young man on the back and led him toward the house.
They were just arriving at the front steps when a carriage made its way along the driveway.
“Is that Horace?” Jordan asked as he craned his neck. Silas nodded.
“It is. I am afraid our game must wait for I am certain he has business to discuss. I am sorry, cousin.”
Truthfully, Silas would have much rather engaged in a game of whist with Jordan than in business talk with his estate steward. Alas, he had no choice.
“Do not fret, I shall keep myself occupied! Perhaps I shall take a visit to the dairy and see what Frannie is up to.”
Silas frowned. His young cousin had taken a fancy to the young dairy maid, something Silas did not approve of. Yet, he had chosen to ignore the matter, as long as things did not get out of hand.
“Do not keep her from her work, Jordan. Unless you’d rather eat your sweet bread without butter in the morning!”
“Zooks! What a dreadful prospect!” Jordan chuckled and he made his way around to the back of the house were the dairy was located. Silas, meanwhile, stood where he was and waited for Horace, the steward, to exit the carriage.
“My Lord, I’m afraid Porter has fallen behind on his rent once more,” Horace, his estate steward, said with a grim face. They were seated in Louis’ study. Well, it had been Silas’ study now for two years. Yet, he always thought of it as his brother’s. He did not expect that to change anytime soon.
“Again? I thought he had quite recovered and caught up on his debt.”
Horace shrugged. “I heard the old man has quite the gambling habit, thus has not a sixpence to scratch with once more.”
Silas rubbed his temples, quite overwhelmed with the running of his vast estate. In addition to managing the farmers, Dornham Estate was also home to one of the largest horse breeding operations in all of England. While Silas enjoyed managing the horses, he did not fare well with the tenants, often leaving that part to Horace.
“Very well. What do you propose, Horace?”
The older man frowned, as yet unaccustomed to being asked questions such as this. Silas knew very well that he was making quite the mess of the running of the estate. The truth was, he did not know what he was doing at all.
He had never expected to inherit the Earldom from his father. In fact, it was his brother, Louis, who had been the heir.
It had been Louis who’d been raised and educated as a future Lord of the Realm, and a member of the House of Lords. Louis had been groomed in the affairs of the estate. Silas, on the other hand, had been expected to do nothing but decide on what struck his fancy the most: A career in the military, the clergy, or perhaps something altogether different such as law or medicine.
To think that I wasted all these years living the life of a proper dandy. Years that I should have spent learning how to handle the affairs of this blasted place. Damn you, Louis! Damn you for dying and leaving me to deal with all of this.
He curled his hands into fists, rage filling him again at the unfairness of it all. He leaned back, his gaze directed at Horace.
The older man, who had served as estate steward to both Louis and their father before him, cleared his throat.
“My Lord, I suspect the best thing to do would be to evict him from the farm. You have given him many a chance.”
Silas swallowed. He did not like the idea, to relieve a man of his livelihood. But then, in the past year, the farmer had fallen behind many a time and there seemed to be no hope this might change in the future. And yet…
“He has a wife and children, does he not?”
Horace shifted in his chair. “He does.”
Silas propped his elbows on the desk and sank his head into his hands.
“My Lord, if I may. It was your father’s policy to give three chances. Upon the third chance…”
He lifted his head. “I am very familiar with the three-chance policy. My father employed a likewise policy for all of us in the home.”
“It served him well. As it did your brother, in his time as Earl.”
Silas got up and paced through the room, hands behind his back. It was the way his father had always walked when he had to make a difficult decision.
It is funny how one is sometimes led to mimic one’s role models in such a way. If only I could mimic my father’s leadership, or at least Louis’s, for I have no idea what is the right thing to do.
In his heart, he felt it would be kinder to Porter’s family to allow them another respite, another chance to pay his debt. But he knew that as Earl, he could not allow himself to think with his heart. That was a luxury for those who were not responsible for an entire estate full of tenants, a house full of servants, and a family.
He spun around. “Very well, Horace. Please inform Porter that we will not be giving him any more chances and that his tenancy is hereby terminated. Give him a week to vacate the farm.” He stopped, suddenly unsure. “Is that reasonable, one week? Or should he be given more time?”
The man before him rose and straightened the large cravat around his neck. “No, My Lord, it is entirely reasonable. I will inform him at once.”
He rose and left the room, leaving Silas behind to ponder his decision.
He sat down once more behind the huge mahogany desk that had once belonged to his brother, and his father before him. Their achievements weighed heavily on Silas—and the knowledge that he would never live up to them, was crushing.
His father, who had inherited the title of Viscount of Burmundy, had been created First Earl of Dornham by King George III, in gratitude for his father’s assistance in stopping an attempt on the King’s life by the madwoman Margaret Nicholson. As Earl, he’d considerably grown the estate, as well as the family wealth.
Silas was sure that if he had not been killed, he would have gone on to be one of the greatest lords in the Realm.
And Louis? Earl for ten years and yet he managed to almost double our wealth with investments in sugar. Revered and respected by our tenants and the townspeople alike—he is mourned still, two years after his death.
They were big shoes to fill and thus far, Silas did not feel he had done a good job at all. True, the estate still made a profit, as things were in order. But it was due to Horace, not Silas. And the steward was getting old and weary. It was only a matter of time before he asked to retire. And then?
There was a knock on the door and a moment later, Jordan poked his head into the room. Silas raised his head and instantly grinned at his young cousin.
“I see your visit to the dairy was a success.” He pointed at his upper lip. “Judging by the milk moustache.”
Jordan entered and rubbed his upper lip.
“Nothing better than fresh milk! Now, I saw Horace leave and wondered if you’d be available for the game of whist you promised.”
Silas inhaled deeply and then exhaled. There was really nothing else he had to attend to at present, given that Horace would attend to the unfortunate business of informing Porter he was out of house and home.
“You look Friday-faced,” Jordan said as he tilted his head to one side, studying him.
“Unfortunate business,” Silas replied and got up from his seat. “A game of whist shall be a good distraction.”
“Splendid! And perhaps, if I beat you, as a reward you shall take me to Park’s tonight!”
Silas winced. Park’s was a well-known gentleman’s club, the kind of place Silas used to frequent, before the Earldom had been passed to him. Now, he liked to avoid them.
However, the prospect of visiting the gentleman’s club delighted the young man so that he found himself unable to deny him.
“Very well. If you win, I shall take you. Only this once!”
His cousin rubbed his hands together in anticipation, as they left the room.
After an afternoon spent losing at cards, Silas found himself having to keep to his word. As the sun set, the two men made their way—in their finest pantaloons and top hats—toward Silas’s stately carriage.
Jordan sat with his face ever pointed toward the window and took in the utter vastness of the estate. Silas was struck by how much Jordan looked like Louis. They had the same strong jaw-line and thick dark hair. They even had the same large forehead and prominent nose, inherited from their maternal grandfather. Silas, on the other hand, had taken after his father. They shared their wispy blond hair and deep blue eyes, as well as their more delicate facial features. His cousin’s voice drew him from his thoughts.
“Why, Silas, I have been here now for six months and I shall never get used to just how grand the estate is. My mother has taken me to visit her friend, the Marchioness of Marblehead, when I was younger, and even their estate is not as large and beautiful as yours.”
Silas shrugged. “I can take no credit for any of it, for it was my father who built it and my brother who further enlarged it.”
“Yes, but it is yours now and you maintain it so well. You are well respected and liked, from all I have heard.” He paused, considering his cousin’s weary face. “But I understand it must be difficult, given that you had no desire to ever be Earl.”
“I did not. I was much like you. The second son in a noble family without prospect of inheriting either the title nor the lands. Nothing to do but decide what I wanted to do with my life.”
His cousin sat quietly and nodded. Jordan was the third, not the second, son of a Scottish Laird and an English noblewoman, the sister of Silas’ mother.
While his older brother would one day be Laird of their estate, and his middle brother had chosen the clergy, Jordan had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
Given the family’s limited resources, his aunt had requested that Silas take Jordan under his wing in England, and given they were the only family Silas still had, he’d gladly agreed. The young man had shown an interest in horse breeding, and Silas took joy in teaching him all about the operation, but he was unsure how that would serve his cousin in the future.
I doubt I am much of a positive influence on Jordan. My life has no clear direction, so how can I influence his life in any meaningful way?
The cousins sat quietly and watched as the sun sank and bathed the fields of the small farms in a beautiful orange glow.
“Perhaps the military,” Jordan suddenly said, taking Silas quite by surprise. “Now that Napoleon has been defeated and we are at peace, it might be a career worth considering.”
“It may well be.” Silas considered the suggestion. “One of my fellow lords, Lord Lancaster, owns an estate not far from here. He served time in France. He was at Waterloo, as well. Perhaps we may call on him for a visit and you can—
Silas got no further for the carriage shook violently as the wheels appeared to connect with a large object on the road.
“Perth!” Jordan called out to the coachman, “What was it?”
There was no reply for suddenly the horses neighed and the carriage came to an abrupt stop. The very next moment, something flew against the side of the carriage, creating a deafening bang.
“By Jove! What is this?” Silas rose and opened the carriage door and stepped out. He found the coachman crouching beside the carriage and saw that several large boulders were strewn across the road. One of the large rocks was wedged under the front wheel, causing the sudden stop.
Silas bent down.
“We shall need to move it. Jordan!” He called out to his cousin, whose face peeked out the carriage door. “Come, help us. There is a boulder blocking our path.”
Jordan climbed out of the carriage but stopped before his feet hit the ground.
“Rocks!” He shouted and dove back inside. Silas turned just in time to see a small rock hit the side of the carriage, right next to where his cousin had just stood.
“Cousin!” He yelled out and got up.
“I am unhurt.” The voice came from inside. Just then, another rock came flying their way. The coachman ducked beneath the carriage while Silas lay down flat on the ground.
“By Jove! What is this?”
“Get inside the carriage, My Lord,” Perth called from the other side. ‘Tis not safe out here. I shall investigate.”
Silas crouched and crawled toward the carriage as another rock came flying.
He waited for it to hit and jumped up, rushing for the open carriage door. He was almost safely inside when Jordan shouted, “Another!”
It was too late. The very next moment, something hit Silas in the back and he was flung forward with such force his head slammed down on the carriage floor.
He saw himself hurtling toward the wooden boards of the carriage floor and then his world went black.
Poppy rushed over, alarmed by Persephone’s shout. She grabbed the old woman’s arm and pulled, freeing her hand from her grip. For a moment, Persephone thought she saw the old, tired eyes flash with anger but then it was gone.
The startling blue eyes had returned to being unseeing, unaware of everything around her. The woman’s hand, a moment ago so strong and determined, lay lax beside her once more.
“This is the first time she has clasped you in such a manner?” Poppy asked, eyes peeled to the old woman’s face.
Persephone nodded. “Yes! Perhaps she is waking at last?”
Her friend shook her head. “No. It is not. It used to happen to Lady Arville at times. A reflex, is all.”
Prior to her employment at Humbertson Manor, Poppy had worked for the Marchioness of Arville, who had been in a similar state as Lady Humbertson, awake, yet asleep. Thus, more often than not, Persephone relied on her experience.
Yet, she found this entire event strange and unsettling.
“Perhaps we should tell the physician when he calls on her next.”
Poppy shrugged, brushing her auburn hair out of her face.
“I would not waste the good physician’s time on the matter. However, if you insist...”
Persephone considered. “Mr. White is not expected until the week after next, so it may be better to observe and see if it happens again.”
She looked once more at the woman who lay on her bed, eyes to the wall in front of her.
“It may be for the best. Would you like help washing her?”
She shook her head. She knew how tiring it was to look after Lady Humbertson for the long twelve-hour shifts the two shared each day and just how tired Poppy had to be.
“I can manage, thank you.”
“Good!” Poppy exclaimed. “I am famished. I did not have the chance to enjoy supper last night, for we—” she glanced at the old woman “—would not eat our meal properly, making a right old mess of everything. So, by the time that was all cleaned up, my food was cold.”
Persephone nodded at the explanation. She wished Poppy would not speak about Lady Humbertson in such a condescending manner.
It is disrespectful, I must say. She is no common woman after all, but the Dowager Countess of Humbertson. It is not worth the argument, however.
“Would you make sure she has her medicine? She would not take it this morning.”
She pointed at the glass of water on the table beside the large four-poster bed. All of the lady’s medicine was ground up into a fine powder as she would not take it any other way.
“Of course, do not fret.”
As Poppy bid her farewell, Persephone retrieved the water jug and bowl, taking the washball from around her neck.
“Now, My Lady, are you ready for your morning toilet?”
She pretended to wait for a reply she knew would not come and turned to lift the jug onto the table.
“Faith!” She exclaimed as the water spilled all over the table. She used a cloth to wipe it up and turned to the woman on the bed.
“I am ever so sorry, Lady Humbertson. I shall fetch you a new lot of medicine when we are done washing, what do you say?”
The woman did not, as predicted, answer and Persephone set about doing her job, washing and dressing her for the day.
The day passed by as the days always did. After dressing the woman, she brushed her hair and then fed her breakfast.
Due to her age and unpredictable condition, most of her foods were soft items like porridge. Some days, such as today, Persephone asked the maid to bring some honey bread and a jar of milk. She would soften the bread in the milk and feed it to Lady Humbertson, who ate it without reaction.
Truthfully, it did not matter what she was given to eat, as her expression never changed. She remained ever the same silent woman, unbothered by the events around her.
The rest of the day was spent cleaning her chambers, assisting her to the chamber pot, and mending the rest of the clothes in the basket.
Persephone liked to spend some time in the early evening, in the hours before dinner, reading. She’d sit beside the woman and read aloud.
She did not know if Lady Humbertson had any real perception or awareness, but Persephone imagined that the Lady, dependent on those around her for comfort and unable to do anything for herself, would appreciate it if someone took an interest.
Persephone had been reading the story of Romeo and Juliette in recent days, a play by Shakespeare, hoping a lady like Lady Humbertson would enjoy his stories. After reading to the woman for nearly an hour, she found a yawn overtake her.
“I am sorry, My Lady, I believe that is all I can manage today. We shall pick it up again tomorrow, if you do not mind. Now... Oh no!”
She suddenly remembered that she'd never given her charge her medicine. She'd forgotten all about it. Persephone rushed to the adjacent room where all of Lady Humbertson's medical supplies were kept. She retrieved a blue unmarked bottle and measured out the powder.
Normally, Poppy, with her experience, prepared and gave Lady Humbertson all of her medication. But Persephone also knew just how much she was to be given.
She returned to Lady Humbertson's bedside with the medicine in a jar and sat on the side of the bed.
“Here we are. Your medication.”
She raised the cup up to the woman’s thin lips and found herself utterly shocked when Lady Humbertson squeezed her lips shut and turned her head.
“Please, My Lady. It is just a small amount of water. It will go down in one swallow.”
She raised it up to her mouth once more when—
Persephone jumped up, dropping the water glass with the medicine for the second time that day.
The voice sounded as though it came from the great beyond, as it was so gravely and strangled. She stared at the woman and saw that once again, her eyes were alert, her nostrils flared.
“No. No medicine.”
Persephone stumbled backwards, unable to comprehend what was happening.
“So, you were awake this morning! When you took my hand. You were awake!”
“I am awake. Always,” the woman said slowly. She raised one arm, something Persephone had never seen her do before. She turned that arm until her palm was facing down and she could indicate with her index finger for Persephone to come toward her.
She swallowed hard, unsure of what to do.
“I should fetch someone. Mr. Benson! Yes! I shall fetch him. He'll be so pleased you are awake!”
“No! I do not wish to involve the dear old man.” The voice was louder this time and she watched in amazement as the woman swept her arm out of bed and knocked down the candleholder that was placed on the table beside her. It fell to the ground with a loud bang, making Persephone jump once more.
“Just you and I. We have no time.”
Persephone was unsure of what to do for one moment, but then reminded herself that this woman was her employer. If not for her, she would have no place to live, and no money to send to her family. She had to obey her, no matter how strange the circumstances were. She swallowed and walked back to the side of the bed.
“You must do something important for me. The lion,” she pointed ahead to the desk which had always stood beside the window. “Push its nose.”
Her voice was becoming clearer and stronger as Persephone made her way to the desk. The lion was coated with a layer of gold which had worn off at the nose. She pushed the tip of it and jumped back as a compartment popped open on the side.
She walked around and reached inside. A piece of paper was stuck inside and she retrieved it.
“Careful,” the woman warned her.
It was a scroll. An old scroll, the paper porous.
“Bring it.” Doing as she was instructed, Persephone walked back to the bed and handed the scroll to her.
“You must take this before they find it.”
“What is it? Who are they?”
“There is no time. Penny, you have been my carer for three years and I trust you. You must take this scroll and bring it to Mable. Do not come back here. Never come back here.”
Persephone stared at her.
Bring it to Mable? But why? And never to return here? She expects me to leave the place that is now my home, the place that provides for my family? For a scroll?
“Lady Humbertson, please. Let me call the physician. You are so miraculously recovered that—”
“I am not recovered. I am old and ill and have little time left. The scroll must not fall in the wrong hands when I’m gone. They have already killed my only son for this scroll. It is my family’s legacy and you must keep it safe.”
She raised her hand and pointed toward the dresser.
“You must go to Stefford. It is where Mable is from. She will help you hide the scroll, she knows what it contains. She knows of the importance of it and what it has cost me.”
Stefford was near the Scottish border. It would take several days to get there, and why would she?
“Lady Humbertson, I cannot. My family, they rely on—”
“I know. I know they rely on your support. In the drawer, beside where you found the scroll, you will find several pieces of gold. Use them to help your family.”
Persephone rose and paced back and forth.
“If it is your family’s legacy, should we not summon your nephew?”
She looked horrified. “It is not my husband’s family’s legacy but my own! My son was the rightful owner of it and they killed him. And now that you’ve seen it, it may cost you your life, too, if you do not get away.”
The old woman bent forward and squeezed her hand “Mable was to take the scroll to safety but she was sent away before she could. Now you must do it in her place.”
Persephone stepped back. “My life is in danger? Why? Who are these people? Are they doing you harm?”
She looked away. “I do not know. I only know that for most of my life, they have found my family. No matter where we go. They have killed my son and perhaps they are at fault for my condition.”
“What do you mean? Do you suspect….”
“I suspect the physicians who give me treatments, the gardeners who cut my flowers, and the acquaintances who send gifts of sweets to me. I trust nobody except a select few. Such as you.”
“But that is terrible. We must get you away!”
The old woman laughed coarsely.
“You wish to spirit me away? You are a charming young girl. And how would you spirit me away? On your back? Stuff me in a satchel? No. It is too late for me. All I can hope for is to save my family’s legacy, with your help. Please. Take the scroll to Mable. And run for your life.”
She swallowed hard. What choice did she have? Lady Humbertson was sending her away. How could she disobey her?
“I will go. I will wait until after dark and…”
Before she could say anything else, there was a knock on the door and a man entered.
“Lord Humbertson!” Persephone exclaimed, surprised to see the Earl of Humbertson here. He usually visited in the evenings when it was Poppy’s duty to look after the woman. Thus, Persephone had hardly ever met the man.
“My dearest Aunt Marcella,” he said as he sat beside her, ignoring Persephone, who’d fallen into a deep curtsy.
To Persephone’s shock, Lady Humbertson lay still on her bed, eyes fixed to the ceiling as if the entire exchange had not happened. The Earl pulled up a chair and when his back was turned, Lady Humbertson quickly looked at Persephone, a pleading expression in her eyes.
She mouthed, “Scroll!” Before turning back into her statue-like position when her nephew looked at her.
“You look unwell today, Aunt.” He used his handkerchief and dabbed at the woman’s sweaty forehead and then glanced at Persephone. “Penny, does my aunt seem different to you today? She has a sheen to her face. She appears strained.”
Persephone swallowed and took in the woman’s face. Indeed, her face looked different today. Strained was a good way to describe it. Of course, she knew why. It was the way she had been talking, exhausting herself after so many years of silence.
“She… She missed her morning medication,” she admitted.
“I see.” He looked at her with a disapproving expression on his face and shook his head.
“It is very important that she takes her medication on time, Penny. This medication is prepared and sent for her by an excellent physician in London. It helps her nerves. It is costly, but it helps her.”
Cold sweat ran down Persephone’s back. The woman’s words rang in her head like an echo. She suspected everyone. What if this physician in London was poisoning her medication?
Now that the seed had been planted in her head, Persephone saw that what the woman told her was true. The people after her—after the scroll—could be anywhere. The Manor had special foods delivered for her from the market to keep up her strength, a variety of physicians and specialists came to see her, and she regularly received packages of sweets and sometimes perfumes from the few friends who remained in touch with her.
Any of these items could be poisoned, causing her state. Any of them could be connected to the people who had killed her son.
Even the Earl could be connected somehow. He was not a blood relation to Lady Humbertson, but perhaps he knew of this mysterious family legacy that was contained within the scroll.
Her heart beat faster as she watched Lord Humbertson. He sat beside his aunt and talked to her in a quiet voice, updating her on the estate and his family. He appeared caring. He appeared as though he had her best interests at heart. But did he? Did anyone?
She considered leaving the Earl to look after his aunt so she could run and find Poppy. Poppy was her closest friend and if she could confide in anyone, it would be her. She was about to make her excuse to leave when Persephone realized that Lady Humbertson was still holding the scroll in her hand.
Should I get it from her? But the Earl will surely wonder what I am doing. And she was clear nobody was to know about the scroll…
She did not have to make that particular decision, for in that moment, Lady Humbertson opened her hand and released the scroll from her grip. Persephone quickly took a step forward and pushed the scroll under the bed where it would remain until the Earl decided to leave.
The Earl departed after almost an hour. All the time, his aunt lay still on her bed, not reacting. Persephone pretended to attend to the mending, while keeping an eye on the scroll beneath the bed.
When at last, the Earl rose and left, she threw the mending into the basket and rushed to the bed.
“Lady Humbertson?” She called out but found to her horror that the woman did not move. “Please, I have more questions before I do as you asked. Please!” She poked the woman in the shoulder but received no response. Exasperated, she sighed and bent down to pick up the scroll.
What can possibly be so important about the scroll that Lady Humbertson would want me to depart the house with it, and to hide it?
“My Lady, please, if you could just …”
She got no further for the door was opened and Mr. Benson, the butler, entered.
“Penny! I am sorry I did not come sooner, but I did not want to interrupt the Earl’s visitation with his aunt. You know how he is,” the older man grimaced as he referenced the Earl’s notorious ill temper.
“What is it, Mr. Benson?” She did not want to sound rude, for he had always been kind to her, but his presence complicated matters greatly.
“I was coming to remind you about Lizzy’s birthday celebration. All the servants are already gathered in the servant’s hall, indulging in cake. I wouldn’t want you to miss out. Run along and join in the celebration. I’m sure I can entertain Lady Humbertson while you are gone.”
He winked at the old woman and for a moment, Persephone thought she saw a tenderness rush over the still woman’s face. Then Mr. Benson looked at her once more, awaiting a reply.
She had forgotten all about the maid’s birthday. It was customary for Mrs. Stewart to arrange a small celebration in honor of one’s birthday. In fact, Persephone had been looking forward to it all week. Yet, in light of the events of the day, cake had been the furthest thing from her mind. And yet… An idea formed in her head.
“I would much enjoy it, yes. Alas, I was in the process of helping Lady Humbertson to the chamber pot. Would you terribly mind if I completed that task before going? And perhaps you might not mind waiting outside—for privacy.”
She averted her eyes, knowing such private talk was improper to have with a man. However, it was the only thing she could think of to get him out of the room for a few minutes while she did what she had to.
When she glanced up, she saw that the butler’s pale face was flushed red with embarrassment.
“Of course, Penny! I shall step outside while you and Lady Humbertson,” he swallowed and looked down, “complete your business.”
He turned and closed the door behind him while Persephone sprang into action. She dove down and grabbed the scroll, looking for a place to put it.
She considered the mending basket but decided against it. It would look odd for her to carry the basket down to the celebration and then back up again.
Then it came to her. She rushed into the closet and retrieved one of the new chamber pots that had just been purchased to replace the older models and placed the scroll inside. The metal lid clanged as she placed it on top.
“Perfect,” she mumbled to herself and carried it into the bedchamber. She stopped at Lady Humbertson’s bed and looked at the woman.
“I will do as you asked. I will find Mable and keep the scroll safe. I will leave now. It is almost dark outside and everyone will be occupied with their celebration. Oh, how I wish there was time for you to awaken once more.”
She considered the woman’s face and then noticed her eyes. The woman rolled them in a peculiar manner toward the right.
“What is it My Lady? What are you trying to say?”
She followed her gaze, relieved that at least there was some way to communicate with her and then she understood.
Persephone rushed back to the desk where the side compartment still stood open. Had Mr. Benson seen it? Or the Earl? She could only hope they had not. Quickly she slipped her hand into the open compartment. Her fingertips bumped up against something and she grabbed. It was a blue velvet pouch. Contained within were several gold coins. She gasped.
‘Tis more money than I have ever seen! It will certainly help my family for some time!
She closed the compartment and stepped towards Lady Humbertson’s bed one last time.
“I will not let you down, My Lady. I promise.”
She placed the pouch next to the scroll and left the room, walking calmly past the butler who returned to the lady’s side.
She picked up speed as she walked down the hall and downstairs. Once she reached the servants floor she turned right, past the kitchen where the servants were presently singing happy birthday to Lizzy.
She rushed into the chamber she shared with Poppy and almost dropped the bedpan when she spotted her friend standing in the room. She’d expected her to be at the celebration, with everyone else.
“Penny! I thought I saw Benson go up to fetch you,” Her friend said brightly. “If he hadn’t, I would have sent you down when I brought this up to Lady Humbertson.”
She pointed at a silver tray which sat on her bed. On it was a fine, gold-encrusted plate with a large piece of birthday cake. Beside it sat a simple vase. Poppy, who enjoyed collecting and drying flowers for bouquets, placed a small selection of flowers into the vase.
“There, isn’t it pretty? I think she will enjoy a little early evening surprise.”
Persephone smiled, forcing herself to appear cheerful. She would miss Poppy so much. She’d never had a true friend before arriving here. She considered for a moment the possibility of confiding in her, but then dismissed it. If knowledge of the scroll was as dangerous as she’d been told, she would not risk endangering her friend.
“It is lovely,” she said instead. To her surprise, Poppy crinkled her face.
“Why do you have that with you?” She pointed and Persephone realized she still had the chamber pot in her hand.
She feigned surprise.
“Faith, I was so eager to eat cake I forgot all about it!” She forced a chuckle out of her mouth and was relieved to find her friend grin in return. Then she picked up the tray.
“Well, why don’t you attend to that, and then enjoy a piece of cake? I shall go up and deliver this to Lady Humbertson and perhaps assist her in eating it. I do not trust Benson to feed her, he is utterly useless at it!”
“I will. And thank you.” She fought the urge to hug her friend, for it would have been suspicious if she did. She had to pretend everything was normal. One day, when it was safe, she would see her again.
She watched as Poppy cheerfully picked up the tray and made her way out of the room. Once the door was closed, Persephone placed the chamber pot down, threw her cloak over her head and stuffed the scroll and pouch inside the pocket.
After packing a few items into her satchel, she made her way outside.
The sun had already set, covering the world with a darkness that made her feel even more apprehensive about the adventure that lay before her. She looked back at the grand Humbertson Manor for one last time, and then ran toward the field where she knew the horses were kept.
She would need to take one to get away. Far, far away.
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