James and I stared at the envelope for a long moment before a wide grin spread across his face. He let out a relieved sigh and I let go of the breath I was holding. “Well, it’s true then. You are my daughter. Welcome to the family, Juliet.”
I took a deep breath. Everything felt like it was spinning. I sat down on the steps and put my head between my knees overwhelmed. I took a few soothing breaths, focusing only on my breathing.
“Are you okay, love?”
I nodded and it took a moment, and clearing my throat a few times before I got my voice back. “Yeah, just a bit…unexpected I guess.” I managed. “A little overwhelming.”
After the world stopped spinning I looked up at the worried expression on James’s face. On my father’s face.
That was a weird concept to wrap my mind around.
My father. I actually had a father. Not just the abstract idea of one, a living breathing, in the flesh, corporeal person that was my father. I rubbed my temples with one hand, thumb on one, middle finger on the other, covering my face in the process. After a moment, my hand rested over my mouth. I didn’t know what to say.
Part of me knew since I met him that I was related to James and since our conversation I had known in the back of my mind. There was no denying our resemblance, the timing added up. But at the same time, part of me expected the results to say that James was no one to me.
I couldn’t explain it. Part of me was relieved, part of me was disappointed. I rubbed my neck and slowly stood. James was beaming at me.
“You may be my father, but I can’t call you Dad.” I warned. James gave me a curious look. “That’s a title you have to earn. Any man can be a father, but if you want to be my Dad, I’ll give you the chance, but that’s something that I think needs to be earned.” I looked him in the eye. “That might make me sound ungrateful or like a brat, but that’s how I feel. You haven’t been in my life for the past two decades, and yes, I understand you didn’t know I existed. But all that aside, I can’t just say none of that matters because it does to me. I hope that makes sense.”
James’s smile lilted a little but he nodded. “I can understand that. I hope you’re willing to let me earn that right.”
“I am. That’s why I said what I said. I don’t want to play games with you. I hate playing games and I really hate games that play with people’s emotions. I don’t want to tell you something that just isn’t true, and I don’t want to hurt you either. I don’t think you want to hurt me either. You seem like a really decent guy, and I’d like to get to know you. You are my father. You’re someone every little girl wonders about. But I don’t know. I can’t just say, hey great, you’re my daddy and the past twenty years mean nothing. But I’m totally willing to take it one day at a time if you are.”
James smiled and nodded. “That sounds like a good start.” I offered my hand and he shook it. “Well then, let’s introduce you to Millie and Angelica properly.”
“I don’t think they’re going to like this.”
“Don’t be silly.”
James led me back to the dining room where Millie and Angelica were both seated enjoying their lunch.
“You’re late, James.” Millie teased then she looked up and saw me and her smile turned to a scowl.
“I have some news for two of my favorite ladies.” James beamed. “Juliet is, in fact, my daughter.”
Millie’s eyes went wide and Angelica choked on her beverage. “Excuse me?” Millie asked, fighting to maintain her composure.
“Daddy, are you not feeling well?” Angelica cooed, looking a little green herself.
“James, we need to be sure of something like this,”
“I am certain. I’ve already had the test completed. Besides, just look at her Millie, she looks just like me.”
I shifted uneasy under the heated gaze of Millie and the scathing look from Angelica.
“James, a word please.” Millie demanded as she stood, threw her napkin down on the table and hurried out of the room. James followed her out.
I looked at Angelica and the look she was giving me was pure hatred. “So…” I started. “I guess that makes us sisters.”
“I am not your sister!” Angelic hissed. “Don’t even think of calling me that!”
I snorted laugh. “Whatever you say, sis.”
“Don’t call me that!” Angelica shouted as she stood and slid the chair back with her movement. “I am not your sister! I am not like you!”
“Well, something we agree on. You’re damn skippy about that.” I rolled my eyes.
“I don’t know what you did to Daddy, but Mum and I are going to fix him. And we’re going to get rid of you.” Angelica stormed out of the dining room fuming.
I sat in an empty chair and ran a hand through my hair. Was I ready for this? This was going to be an uphill battle with these two against me. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I was sure that this was going to be messy. And I was pretty sure those two would be out for blood. I pulled my legs up in the chair with me, wrapped my arms around them and rested my forehead on my knees.
Mom, give me the strength to do this. I prayed silently.
I sat at the dining table alone and I realized that this was really how it had always been. It was always an uphill battle I chose. I always managed to put myself behind the eight ball. Sometimes I lost, but usually I found a way. I decided if I was going to do this, I would need as much help as I could get. I got up and left. I wandered until I found my way back outside and headed for the stables.
There was something about being around horses that just calmed me and made me happy. When I was younger, Mom, being a single Mom, didn’t have a lot of extra money and couldn’t afford a lot of extras. But she was always willing to help me find a way. I used to volunteer for a horse ranch, mucking stalls, cleaning tack, caring for the horses, and in exchange for my work, they’d let me ride for free. I did that until there was an accident. I was helping train a new horse and I was thrown and got hurt. After that Mom and the ranch came to an understanding, and I wasn’t allowed to go back. I snuck into the barn and the horses started prancing in place. They didn’t recognize my smell and they just knew I wasn’t supposed to be here.
“Easy there.” I soothed. I made my way to the first stall. Inside was a painted mare with her colt. The little colt was jet black and he was going to be a feisty one when he grew up. He pranced up to the window where I was and let me pet him. He was affectionate and rubbed his nose against my arm. I felt myself smile. I made my way through the stables, watching all of the horses and trying to get a feel for them.
“You’re not supposed to be in here.” I froze then spun around to see Ben. He was leaning against the frame with his arms crossed, an amused smirk across his lips.
“I got lost.” I shrugged innocently.
“Lost you say? I’d say you looked right at him.”
“I’ve always loved horses. Something about them makes me feel calmer.” I admitted.
Ben started over to where I was. “Is something the matter?”
I looked at Ben and shook my head. “Just a lot to take in.”
“Word on the grounds is that you are Eastgate’s daughter.”
“Is that what they’re saying?”
I shrugged. “Could be.”
Ben was looking into my eyes, like he was searching my face for something. “Other than your eyes, I’d say you’re a spitting image.”
I looked down. “I don’t know what I”m doing here.” I admitted before I my gaze returned to his eyes.
Ben gave a careless shrug. “There’s only one person who can tell you that, and that’s you.” I nodded. Tell me something I don’t know. “But I can show you a little bit of what’s around here, if you like.”
“I’d like that.”
Ben led me through his chores and was surprisingly easy to talk to. He told me a lot about James, Millie, and Angelica. He showed me a little more of the grounds and when he was finished with his daily chores, he offered to take me around the grounds on horseback. I happily accepted. Somehow we ended up at the lake, the both of us sitting on the dock.
“So, you’ve lived on these grounds your whole life?” I asked him.
“Yeah, except for the time when I was in school.”
“I can’t really imagine it. I mean some of the stories with boarding schools seem fun, but I would have missed my mom. You know, being away months at a time?”
Ben shrugged. “Of course you miss home, but you just deal with it. Besides we sent letters and there’s this new invention called a telephone. We rang each other all the time.” Ben teased.
“I don’t get most of this lifestyle.” I admitted.
“I don’t know how to explain it.” Ben laughed. “It’s just the way things are.”
“Well, what else is there to you, other than just a stable boy?”
Ben laughed at that. “I’m stable boy to you then?” he chortled.
I rolled my eyes. “I’m pretty sure you know what I meant.”
“What do you want to know?”
“This is going to sound really weird, but what else can you tell me about James?”
“What kind of a person is he?”
“I don’t know if I’m the best person to talk to about this.”
“Juliet, he’s my employer. He employs most of my family.”
“I didn’t even think about that. Sorry, I understand. How about you tell me a little about you instead?”
Ben smiled. “What would you like to know, love?”
I thought for a moment and shrugged. “Can you swim?”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Yes, why?”
I smirked and pushed him in. I wanted to see where he surfaced before I jumped in, but the only thing I saw was bubbles. “Ben?” I looked around frantic. “Oh shit!” I dove in after him. I started trying to find him and when it felt like my lungs were going to burst I surfaced.
I heard howling laughter and saw Ben under the dock. “Oh, so you didn’t drown.” I breathed as I started swimming back towards the dock.
“Sorry to disappoint.” Ben laughed. “Give a guy a little warning next time.” Ben warned as he swam over to me.
I shrugged. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Well, you’re definitely different than them. That’s for sure.” Ben said after a moment as he floated on his back.
“Is that a good thing?”
“It’s not a bad thing. I don’t know if they’d all agree, but I think so.”
I sighed and floated on my back too. How could I be like them? I’d hate myself if I was like Angelica. I had to work for everything I had. I had earned all of it myself. I couldn’t imagine something just being handed to me. “No, I don’t think I am.”
“It’s getting late.” Ben pointed out. “We should get going.” Ben started swimming for the edge and I followed him. Once we could stand, Ben offered me a hand and helped me out of the late. “They’ll be serving dinner soon. Millie is pretty strict about meal times.”
I smiled and nodded. “Do you mind showing me back?”
“Of course.” Ben gave me a leg up onto my horse and we laughed and joked all the way back up to the main house, still dripping wet.
“Where have you been?” I flinched at the shrill scold. I looked up to see Millie. She had a fierce glare on her face, her arms crossed and her anger surrounded her like a cape.
“I was looking at my father’s grounds.” I smiled back up at her. I had a funny feeling we would never really get along.
“Benjamin, take these horses back to the stables immediately.”
“Madame Eastgate.” Ben bowed and flashed me a smile once Millie’s attention had been diverted. I smiled back at him and his smile turned to an impish grin. “Lady Juliet.”
“As my lady commands.” Ben took both horses by the reins and led them back towards the stables. I watched him until Millie cleared her throat. I turned back to her.
“We need to have a very serious talk.” Millie started.
“Do we now?”
“I don’t know who you think you are, but I am willing to pay you whatever it takes to get you back on a plane today.”
I took a step back. I was sure I’d heard her wrong. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. How much money will it take to get you to go back to wherever you came from.”
I stared at Millie, disgust on my face. “Are you kidding me?” My opinion of Millie was forever changed in that instant.
“I am not one for kidding.”
“Then you absolutely disgust me.”
“Pardon?” Millie demanded, the anger intensifying in her eyes.
“You disgust me. That’s insulting. You think you can buy me?”
“Everyone has a price.”
“No, you’re wrong.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Oh yes, you are. Everyone like you has a price. But I’m not like you.”
“I’m sure there’s something.”
“I’m not in this for money. I never was.”
“Then what are you in it for?”
“About who my father is. About this life I never knew. About the man my mother fell in love with.” I shot back. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to go change.”
“There’s something we agree upon.”
I flipped Millie the bird as I walked past her into the main house. I was fuming and didn’t realize until I’d wondered down several corridors that I still had no idea how to get to my room. I looked around and realized not only was I lost, but I was also still wet and tracking mud throughout the house. I pulled off my dripping socks and shoes and started shivering.
“Ah, Juliet there you-” James started, but stopped as soon as he caught sight of me. “Dear lord! What in the world have you been doing?”
I shrugged. “Let’s just say I slipped.”
“You’ll catch your death like that. Where were you going?”
“Trying to find my room.”
“Ah, I suppose I haven’t given you a tour of the main house, have I? Let me show you to your room. It looks like there’s a story behind all of this.” James started navigating the manor. “Millie seems rather put out by our discovery.” He offered after a moment of uncomfortable silence.
“Oh? Does she? I hadn’t noticed.” I rolled my eyes.
“It’s a new idea to her. Give her time to adjust.” James consoled. He’d caught my sarcasm.
I sighed. “James, I don’t think she’s going to adjust to me. I’m not like her. I’m not part of your world. It’s cool that I’m your daughter and your my father and everything. But still, I’m illegitimate. Isn’t that kind of a big deal? Isn’t everything about who belongs to who and so on and so forth?”
“Juliet,” James sighed. He looked to be trying to find the right words to say. “This is your room.”
“James, it’s cool we found each other. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe no one else needs to know who we are to each other.” I offered. If he wanted out, he had this chance. I wouldn’t hold it against him.
“Juliet, you are my daughter. I’ve only just found you. I have no intention to get rid of you.” James assured me with a smile.
“It would make your life easier.”
“Yes, well, I have rarely chosen the easy way. That is part of why you are here today.”
I smiled at that. “You’re making your life a lot more complicated than it has to be.”
“Juliet, I understand the risks I am taking. You are taking risks here too. Do you understand them?”
I shook my head. “I have no idea what this world is that I’ve just stepped into. But I do know I won’t be welcomed with open arms.”
James nodded sadly. “I won’t ask you to decide something of this gravity in so short a span of time. If anyone asks you, just say you are a relative visiting from America. Tell no one who you really are until you are sure you want this. If we announce you, there will be no turning back.”
I nodded. I wanted to understand, but I really didn’t know what it would mean to be a Duke’s daughter. “What would be the first step?”
“I will call my advisor tomorrow. I’ll have her send someone over for you.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Meaning?”
“Do you enjoy shopping?”
I shrugged. “I’m not very partial to parting with my money.”
“On my pound?”
“I can’t accept that.”
“I insist. You can consider this twenty-one years worth of birthday presents, if you like.” James offered. “I won’t take no for an answer. Now hurry, go change. I’ll send up one of the servants to show you to the dining room. It’s nearly time for supper.” James hurried off leaving me alone to take in what he just said.
I sighed and retreated to my room and locked the door.