WARNING: THIS STORY IS NOT EDITED.
Fate had not been kind over the last year to the young woman sitting amongst the late spring flowers. The golden rays of the early morning sun shone down on her bent head, picking up the bronzed highlights laced intermittently throughout her chestnut curls. Her tan and white English foxhound ran with reckless abandonment, darting in and out of the hedgerows bordering the meadow as she chased an unsuspecting rabbit. Not that the dog would actually catch the poor thing, she never did, to her it was just a game.
Oblivious to her pet’s antics, she sat reading the novel she held in her hands. Her unusual violet eyes scanned the pages hungrily, the words leaping off the page in lyrical brilliance. Sighing, she let the novel slip from her grasp as she lay down on the rich green pasture and stared at the azure blue sky. Oh, how she would love to see her own work in print. The many pages of prose she composed whenever she needed to escape into a fantasy world of her own creation.
“Artemis!” she called to her pet as she brought herself reluctantly back to reality. “Come, we must go back to the cottage, Mrs Woods shall be wondering if we have gotten ourselves lost.”
Not wanting to abandon her game, Artemis came trotting over with a suitably chagrined expression in her brown eyes, if that were even possible. She followed her mistress as they made their way through the yellow and white wild flowers that dotted the landscape until they reached a charming thatched cottage nestled into a small gully. They walked down a well-trodden path lined with lavender bushes that scented the air with a clean, crisp fragrance, toward a simple whitewashed door that opened almost immediately.
A small, slender woman stood on the threshold. She patted her almost white hair and smoothed her simple, white muslin apron with a disconcerted expression on her countenance as if she did not know what to do with her hands.
“Oh, Miss Grace,” she cried. “I have been waiting for you to come home. The squire has arrived and he does not look happy.”
“Oh, dear, I wonder what he wants now,” Grace replied, a frown marring her brow. Although, she did know, it was the same conversation she always had with him.
She followed the housekeeper into a sparsely furnished parlour. Completely out of place within the pretty periwinkle blue and white room, stood Squire Pembroke, a most unwelcome visitor at the best of times. Judging by the expression on his ruddy face, things did not bode well for Miss Grace Preston. She just wished he would go away and leave her alone.
What a picture he thought he portrayed. His valet had tied his olive green cravat in an overcomplicated manner and his olive green coat fit snuggly across his broad shoulders. If his buff coloured breeches strained against his thighs and puce waistcoat threatened to burst its buttons, surely it was a testament to his cook, roast beef, and trifle.
Grace stiffened as he cleared his throat, a raspy, brusque sound guaranteed to grate on nerves less robust than hers. Putting all her effort into straightening her spine, she tilted her chin in challenge and looked him square in the eye, bracing herself for what she knew would come.
“My dear Miss Preston …” He moved closer to her still rigid form. “My dear Grace, surely we are past such formalities are we not. I am the most patient of men, I wish for you to announce the date of our wedding.”
“I have not said yes to you squire,” she replied. “A fact you seem to have conveniently forgotten.”
He bristled with indignation. “You are over the year of mourning your dear parents. Surely, there is nothing to stand in our way. You are over twenty-one are you not?” he asked.
“That is true, sir,” she said. “Nevertheless, I must decline your gracious offer.” That ought to mollify the pompous prig, she decided.
“I have been patient beyond all reckoning. I wish to set the date, if you do not set it. I shall set it for us.” His eyes gleamed with the knowledge Grace would have to agree with his logic.
“But that cannot be. You cannot force me against my will, and I shall not marry you. Not now, not ever, also there is no one to ask for my hand, there is no one in the world I have to answer to, as I have no family. My word and mine alone is what counts here and I say no,” she said, her pique starting to show.
The time for polite refusal had fled. She must stand her ground against this man. Marriage to him was unthinkable! It was a blessing he was not privy to the knowledge she had an uncle, the Earl of Denby. No doubt, the squire would think of a way of demanding that man to compel Grace to accept the squire as a worthy husband. There would be ice-skating in hell before Grace let that happen.
The squire paced the polished wood floorboards with pensive and ponderous steps. One pudgy hand stroked his chin while he mulled over the problem presented to him. He no doubt thought her an obstinate miss. Her refusal had angered him greatly; she could see that. He then stopped short, as if an idea walloped him in the back of the head.
Grace stared at the figure now standing before her with an air of overweening confidence about him that made her heart sink down to her toes. The sound of him clearing his throat bought the expected wince as well as a tremor of fear. Although, she did not know why, he had always conducted himself with utmost propriety. Mrs Woods was present, but what could that little old lady do if he decided to throw his weight around, and a considerable weight it was too. Attack him with a rolling pin.
“I have been kind enough to allow you to rent this cottage from me,” he said, triumphantly. “However, you have refused my proposal for the last time; I am giving you two weeks to vacate the premises. See how far you get without a place to live, then my proposal shall not seem so bleak to you, my dear.”
That should be enough for her to agree to his proposal, he thought smugly as he carefully watched her. Grace needed changing and he thought he would be the one to do it. Once he gave her a couple of children to tend, that would put an end to her mindless scribbling, no man wants a bluestocking for a wife. Not any man he knew, least of all himself, and he would wed her, of that he had no doubt.
Her knees trembled, her legs gave way, and she sank down into the periwinkle blue wing chair that fortunately sat behind her. She would be mortified if she ended up on the floor with her skirts above her head, she did not need the squire seeing too much of her feminine legs. It was not proper. She had enough problems as it was.
“I shall give you tonight to think about it and will be back in the morning to find out your answer,” he continued.
He left the cottage with a spring in his step, secure in the knowledge she would not refuse him. How could she, she would not get far without a roof over her head. She would have to agree to his proposal, he had backed her into a corner, and he could not see any way she could survive on her own. He began to whistle as he mounted his horse and galloped away, without looking back.
Grace sank back against the backrest of the chair, placing her hands over her eyes. Mrs Woods had long since disappeared, no doubt because she detested the squire as much as Grace did. Brows furrowed in thought, she considered the problem now staring her in the face. Would the squire do what he threatened? Knowing him like Grace did, he probably would, odious, pompous man that he was. He obviously had a hearing problem because she had refused him enough and he never seemed to listen. However, he wanted her and would not take no for an answer.
Grace’s father had been the rector of the local church. That is until a tragic carriage accident took both him and her mother before their time. Since then, she had rented a cottage on the estate owned by the squire and brought Mrs Woods with her; she was the housekeeper at the rectory and a faithful retainer for a considerable amount of time. At first she thought he was doing it out of the goodness of his heart, but as she came to know him, she realised he did not have one. As it turned out, he had ulterior motives and his true character came out with his visit that morning.
Mrs Woods had constantly implored Grace to approach her uncle, the Earl of Denby for help, but she had been loath to. The only time Grace had heard from him since the tragedy, was a short letter of condolence that he had not even written himself. It was as if he did not care his younger brother had even passed on, let alone leaving his only daughter with not a soul to look out for her. Not once did he enquire about how she fared. Grace eventually decided that she would rather be homeless and destitute than crawl to him on her hands and knees.
She bent down to fondle the smooth ears of her pet. “Oh, what am I to do, Artemis?” she asked sadly.
Artemis sat at her feet; her head cocked to the side and gazed at her as if she understood every word. To Grace it looked like her faithful pet regarded her with sympathy, but that was nonsense of course. Shaking her head at the foolishness of having a one way conversation with her dog, Grace rose from the chair and went to look for Mrs Woods.
Eventually, Grace found Mrs Woods in the kitchen, why she did not look there in the first place she did not know. The warm, fragrant smell of baking bread cooking in the wood stove teased her nose as she entered; it reminded her of her mother’s warm hug, a hug she would no longer receive. She did not realise she was hungry, her stomach growled in protest as she sat down at the simple oak table underneath the apricot and white draped window. She turned her head to look out at the vista beyond, placing her chin in her hands. She could not bear to leave the simple, country life she had become accustomed to, but leave she must. Such a lovely place to live, somewhere inspiration for her writing could be found in every direction. She would not marry that man for anything; it would be like selling her soul to the devil. Something she could never do.
Noticing Grace’s melancholy and possibly because she heard her stomach growl, Mrs Woods placed a simple porcelain bowl in front of her filled to the brim with her speciality, a rich chicken soup, chock full of natural goodness. Despite Grace thinking otherwise, Mrs Woods had heard what the squire said in the parlour. His voice carried throughout the cottage and he made no effort to lower his tone; surely, they must have heard him in the next county.
“If worst comes to worst, miss,” Mrs Woods, said, sympathetically. “We can live with my sister and her husband. They’ll put us up, no doubt about it.”
“I cannot ask you to do that, dear lady,” Grace said, smiling at the woman who was like a grandmother to her. “You may go if you wish, but I fear I have to think of something myself. I cannot impose on your kindness any longer.”
“Nonsense,” Mrs Woods cried. “It has been an absolute pleasure looking after your family for all these years and you as well, I might add. You are not considering marrying that vile man, are you?” Her eyes narrowed at Grace as she observed her reaction.
“I may have no other choice,” Grace said sadly. She placed a spoonful of the delicious soup into her mouth and for some reason it seemed to stick in her throat. With some effort, she managed to swallow.
“Oh, no, Miss Grace,” Mrs Woods cried, placing her dainty hand onto her heart. “If you marry the squire, it would be like you sold your soul to the devil. You would cease to exist. A young, vibrant woman like yourself needs love in a marriage, not a man old enough to be your father.”
Grace thought a moment. He was not quite old enough to be her father, but he was five and thirty. Oh, she had feelings for him, very strong feelings, but they were quite the opposite of what he wanted. However, for a poor rector’s daughter, eligible young men did not grow on trees, especially in the country backwater she now found herself. This may be the only opportunity she had for security, despite how she detested the man.
“Of course, you are right,” Grace said, sighing. “But, I see no other way.”
“There is always a way,” Mrs Woods, replied emphatically. “Mark my words, things shall work out the way they are meant to. They always do.”
With that rather obscure remark, Mrs Woods left to check if the post had arrived. Surely, it had come by now. The post is never on time, she grumbled as she walked down the hallway to the front door. Minutes later, she had the post in her hand and walked back to the kitchen.
After she had finished eating, Grace went to her room, Artemis following close behind. Wherever Grace went, Artemis was sure to follow. She sat down on the violet coverlet that sat on top of her simple oak bed; Artemis jumped up beside her and placed her head in Grace’s lap. As she fondled Artemis’s ears, she looked about the room, inconsolable at having to leave a place she had come to love.
It was a simple room with little evidence that a young woman possessed it. A small oak desk sat underneath the violet and cream draped window, parchment covered with her thoughts and feelings strewn about on top in disarray. To the left of the desk sat an unadorned vanity with no lotions or perfumes to suggest a woman owned it. The only object of beauty within the small room was a painting of her parents above her bed, her most treasured possession, and not one she would leave behind willingly.
Startled, she turned around when she heard movement behind her. Mrs Woods entered, her simple, black skirts swishing about her legs in her haste to see Grace. She wore an expression of sheer exhilaration on her countenance, something completely out of character for the usually taciturn housekeeper. In her hand, she held the post, waving it about her head in obvious excitement.
“Oh, Miss Grace,” she cried. “You will never believe this.”
“What is it, Mrs Woods?” Grace asked. “Please do not keep me in suspense. I do not think I can handle it after all that happened this morning.”
Mrs Woods handed her the letter. “I took the liberty of opening it, I hope you do not mind,” she said. “It is from the Marchioness of Rutherford. I do think that dear lady has an answer to our prayers.”
“Of course not, but do we know the lady? I do not recall anyone by that title,” Grace replied, a puzzled expression upon her countenance.
“You may not have, but your mother did. Go on read it,” Mrs Woods said, sitting down beside Grace on the bed.
Grace gazed at her in disbelief. Nevertheless, she did as she was bid and read the missive, her eyes widening in astonishment as they scanned the page. She had to read it twice more to understand the meaning behind the words written so eloquently on the page in a small, precise hand. She allowed the paper to fall to the floor and turned toward Mrs Woods, an expression of pure astonishment upon her pretty face.
“I do not believe it,” she said softly.
“It would seem, Miss Grace,” Mrs Woods replied. “Circumstances shall turn out as they are meant to, just like I said they would.”
“Yes, it appears so, but how on earth did you know?” Grace said, absently running her hand down Artemis’s smooth coat.
“I have not lived as long as I have without learning a thing or two,” she replied with a chuckle. “What are you to do? Surely, you will send your acceptance of Lady Rutherford’s very kind offer.”
As it turned out, Lady Rutherford used to know Grace’s mother quite well, they were the best of friends during their come-out days. Back then, she held the title of Lady Mary Whitcombe, the eldest daughter of an earl. Now, she held the very rare and very impressive title of, Lady Mary Thorpe, Marchioness of Rutherford.
Judging by what she wrote in the letter, after a short visit to London, she planned to return to her son’s country estate where she now lived. Whilst in London, she found out about Grace’s parents passing away and her subsequent troubles that resulted. Lady Rutherford felt lonely tucked away in the country all alone and hoped Grace would accept a position as her companion for she had heard wonderful things about her from her mother. Obviously, even someone as unknown as Grace was not immune to idle gossip amongst the ton.
“I shall send my acceptance immediately, Mrs Woods,” she said. She was not sure how long she would be required, but at least it would give her more time to consider her options regarding her future.
“I thought you might,” Mrs Woods replied before leaving the room, a smile teasing the corners of her mouth.
Grace sat down at the desk and began to write her acceptance to the kind offer from a lady she did not even know. She began to feel both apprehensive and a little excited at what the future would hold; it seemed a kaleidoscope of butterflies had taken wing causing her stomach to flutter in anxiety. Although, she knew she would enjoy telling the squire she would gladly leave and would not accept his proposal, the expression on his face would be priceless.
Once finished, she reread her reply and happy with the result, placed it in an envelope and sealed it with a blob of red wax.
“Well, Artemis,” she said. “It is done and you shall be coming with me. I shall not go anywhere without you my friend.” She bent down to hug her pet and received a lick upon the fine, alabaster skin of her face for her effort.
Due to his word, the squire arrived the next morning on Grace’s doorstep. It seemed to Grace, he looked even more confident than he usually did. He stood in her parlour, rocking back and forth on his heels with an expression of triumph on his countenance. Obviously, he thought he had her in an awkward position and did not expect yet another refusal.
“Good morning, squire,” she said. She tried to keep her expression meek and docile as not to tip her hand too early, which turned out to be harder than she thought.
“Have you made a decision yet, Miss Preston,” he asked.
Good grief, he was not one to beat around the bush. “Yes, I have,” she replied slowly. Looking him square in the eye, she could not resist the shudder that shook her right down to her toes. She could see the gleam of satisfaction that shone within the pale blue depths. “I have decided to leave. You did say I have two weeks, did you not?”
The mixture of emotions that flitted across the squire’s face would have been quite comical at any other time, from disbelief to shock to utter rage, his face transformed right before her eyes. “What?” he bellowed. “Where will you go? You have nowhere else.”
“That, sir, is none of your concern,” she replied, surprisingly her voice stayed level, she could have sworn it would be a timid squeak. “I have made my plans and there is not a thing you can do about it.”
“We shall marry, my dear,” he snarled. “One way or the other, I shall get what I want.”
“That is another thing; I shall not tolerate you blackmailing me. A gentleman does not do such things and you, sir, are not a gentleman,” she said pointing a slender finger at him. Could that man not get it through his thick head, she did not want to marry him.
“We shall see,” he said. “Mark my words, I shall find out where you are, you cannot hide from me.”
With that, he turned on his heel and strode angrily from the cottage, muttering under his breath as he went. That girl is impossible, he thought, she had nowhere to go. Why did she not just accept his proposal, he was sure she desired the many things that his purse could buy her, along with a nice house to be mistress of. He shook his head as he mounted his horse and galloped away, his mind full of ways he could make her see sense.