The steady clops of the horses lulled Celesta’s torrid mind. The drawn curtains kept the darkness out. They were still some miles from London, but the driver had been told not to stop.
Ache traveled up her spine from the constant shifting of the carriage and the stones in the road, compounding the misery she felt.
“I wish we could stay at Willowby Hall,” her maid Edith said quietly. The girl had been silent most of the journey and Celesta knew she wasn’t happy about leaving the only home she’d known.
“It was meant to be,” Celesta said, as she had so many times before in the last weeks. The most awful month of her life, that had started with her father’s unexpected death, and ended with her being told her mourning was over and she had to leave the only home she’d ever known. To go to London.
Granted, she’d always wanted to visit London, but not under these circumstances. It was all like a terrible dream she couldn’t wake up from. The change in her circumstances had happened so fast, she still hadn’t managed to wrap her mind around it.
Why was everything in such a hurry? And why had her father given her care over to a man she didn’t know? How could this be right? Why couldn’t she stay with her cousin who’d now inherited Willowby Hall, instead of being hurriedly bundled off to London? Joseph wouldn’t mind, she was sure. Not that she’d had a chance to talk to him. Maybe she was being rushed off because he didn’t want her there. It could be because while the title and Willowby Hall went to him, most of her father’s wealth stayed with her. In reality, she was a wealthy woman.
What any of this meant, she couldn’t even start to comprehend. Her mind was muddled and confused. That wasn’t normally like her, but she just felt as if she needed a still, dark room to dwell in, and she hadn’t had a moment of it. So much had to be done, and everyone was telling her what to do. Mr. Chambers, the reverend, and also her father’s man of business. Even the housekeeper, Miss Riyend. There hadn’t been a moment to think about any of this.
“My back is hurting as much as it’s ever hurt,” Edith complained, trying to rub the soreness out of it. “Do we know why we’re in such a hurry?”
Celesta had no answer, and sat there, biting the end of her thumbnail. Normally, her governess would tell her off for it, but she wasn’t here. Why wasn’t she here? What was to happen with Miss Parkwright? Not that she’d needed a governess for a while now, but she served as a companion. A hurried wave through the carriage door was all she’d been afforded, seeing the governess that had guided her for years through the upstairs window. The sadness on Miss Parkwright’s face was something that would haunt Celesta. This was all just so awful.
No, it would be alright, she told herself. Her despair was simply related to losing her father, even as it could be said they weren’t the closest. He’d been proud of her and had invested in her skills and readiness to be introduced at court.
Perhaps that wouldn’t happen now. This malaise could also have to do with the fact that she didn’t really know what was happening. She was going to see Lord Vanhence. This had been stipulated in her father’s will, she’d been told.
Pulling the curtain back, she looked outside, seeing nothing but darkness, but as she leaned closer to the glass, she saw hazy brown clouds in the distance. That had to be London, where the light of the city reflected off the clouds.
“I think we’re getting closer,” she said to Edith.
“Thank heaven, because I don’t think I can take any more of this.”
Now she wondered if Edith’s informality would become an issue in London. They’d grown up together, with Edith being her maid and companion from age eleven, but the closeness of their relationship was frowned upon by many. Her father hadn’t cared, and Celesta had never seen a reason to change it. But now, things might have to change.
Everything had changed. It was too much to think about and she closed her eyes, trying to again feel lulled by the movement of the carriage.
It would all be well, she told herself. London was an exciting place, and it was always intended she spend some time there.
Impatience grew as they got closer to the city and the brightness soon came to them. They both looked out the window, seeing a city they’d never known. There were people, even after dark. Noise and busyness. At times, the carriage had to slow down to get past people, carts and other carriages. All this they watched. There was no space between the buildings at all. One right up against the next. Not a garden in sight.
“I’ve never seen so many people,” Edith said. “I’ve never seen so many buildings.”
The buildings eventually became larger, and they exchanged looks when the carriage finally started slowing to stop.
“This must be the one,” Edith said, her eyes large in the reflected lights from the street outside.
Inhaling deeply, Celesta let out her breath slowly. They were here, and she had no idea what to expect.
A man appeared with a lantern and he opened the door. “Come, come,” he said and held his hand to her. Was this Lord Vanhence? No, he was dressed like a servant. This had to be Lord Vanhence’s steward.
“I hope your journey went well,” he said and then helped her and Edith out of the carriage in turn. It felt like a blessing to stretch her legs and back. It only half released the cramped pain she felt.
“It was a long journey,” she replied.
“Please forgive me. I am Mr. Harris, and you are Miss Wiltham, I expect,” he said with a nod of his head.
“Yes. And this is Miss Edith Marsh,” Celesta said, and Edith curtseyed.
“Good, good. We hoped you’d arrive tonight, and it’s wonderful to see you in one piece. The roads can be dangerous. Please come. Lord Vanhence is in the parlor.”
Celesta smiled, but the feeling of being overwhelmed returned. Likely, there would be a room for her that she could retreat to. She felt like she could sleep for days, but she didn’t know what was expected of her.
The man led them into the large house that was ornately decorated with wooden beams and white plaster. The upper floor was lined with dark windows, making the building seem looming and ominous. It was a handsome building. Lord Vanhence was not an inconsequential man.
The house was nicely heated when Mr. Harris led them into the vestibule and onto a parlor where a hearty fire crackled in the large stone fireplace. The walls were wooden and uniform, in places ornately carved from what she could see.
A man sat by the fire and rose as they approached. His brown hair was neat, and he looked about the same age as her father. Not old, but neither young.
“Miss Wiltham, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I am Lord Vanhence, a close friend of your father’s.”
She smiled and curtseyed, and Edith did the same.
“Please sit,” he said and indicated to another chair. With a thrown look, he dismissed Mr. Harris, who took Edith with him.
For a moment, Celesta wanted to object, but they were at their destination, and Edith had things she needed to take care of. Hopefully that included preparing a bed chamber.
“Quite a turn of events. I’m sorry for all that’s happened. I will miss your father dearly,” he said, and for a moment, the soft words brought tears to the back of her eyes, but she refused to cry in front of this stranger. “You must be tired. I won’t keep you, but I wish you welcome to my house. This is where you will live for the near future. It is a calm house. I am sure you will like it. Your father stayed here many times,” he said with a smile.
“It is a very handsome house,” she replied, her voice sounding small and thin. It was hard for her to conceive that she would live here. Willowby Hall was the only place she’d ever lived, and here, there was no space at all. The house was spacious, but it abutted other houses. For all she knew, there was no private garden at all. It was difficult to imagine that she would see no greenery. Going for walks was something she did every day. But that didn’t matter now. This was the reality of her situation. “Am I your ward?”
“Yes. That is the agreement your father made with me, that I should be your guardian if he was struck down. I’m sorry to say that’s happened. But we will make the best of this as well as we can.”
An awkward silence descended between them for a moment.
“You must be tired,” he finally said. “Would you like me to show you to your room?”
“Yes, please,” she said, feeling heartened about the suggestion to retreat and rest. As well as her body, her mind was exhausted. Too much worry, and too much to think about. At least she had some answers as to what her future would look like, and that was a large portion of her uncertainty. She had a roof over her head, and that made her feel better. All her life, she’d been told how perilous the world was, and now she’d, in essence, been thrown into it. At least she didn’t have to fend for herself, and she was grateful to her father for ensuring she wasn’t to be abandoned.
Raucous laughter roused Dominic Hartley from where he’d gotten much too comfortable. It was the end of the night and merriment had been had by all. The pub they were in was in a cellar, the ceiling low and vaulted over their heads.
Cups sat on the table, as did empty flagons. The barmaids had long ago sought more profitable pursuits and the drinks had stopped pouring. Everyone had had their fill.
Truthfully, Dom liked this part of the evening, when there was nothing more to do. The evening was spent, and no one had energy for anything more than contented conversation that had a decidedly philosophical tone. Everyone was a philosopher this time of night.
All there was left to do was to wander home to their houses. Dom’s was on Addlo Street, which was a decent enough neighborhood.
“That’s it for me,” he declared.
“No!” Roderick whined. “The sun isn’t even up yet. It’s much safer walking home when the sun’s up.”
“I’ll take my chances.” Once he made a decision, he wouldn’t be swayed from it. As much as he’d enjoyed the night, he was ready to fall into his bed and sleep until he couldn’t sleep anymore. In the morning, he’d been requested by his brother to call around, but he’d already decided he didn’t want to see Cornelius tomorrow.
What he’d rather do was to recuperate from this wonderful evening. Rather, it was an excuse for not leaving his house, and allowing Mrs. Muir to fuss over him. Throughout the day, she would chide and tsk at him for dragging himself home in such a state, but it would always result in a hearty breakfast and a well-tended fire.
Clapping his friend on the back, he made his way out of the bar that was increasingly less crowded than during the height of the evening. Cool air met him outside, calming the ill scents of the city.
Roderick was right, this wasn’t a safe city in the dark corners and alleys, but Dom could handle himself if he needed to. His time as a youth had involved enough fights that he knew what to do in one. The thugs and waywards seemed to sense it, so he was rarely approached, and even more rarely assaulted. They quickly rued the decision when it did happen.
It never ceased to surprise him how many people lingered on the streets even this late at night. But the moon was full tonight, casting its pale light down into the narrow streets of London.
Some of the poor wretches of the city couldn’t rest at night, and Dom lightened his purse with them as he made his way home. He was by no means one of the wealthy stalwarts of the city, but he had enough to be generous to the unfortunate.
His house was dark as he arrived home and he had to wake the stable boy who slept just by the backdoor to let him in.
Even though he hadn’t lived in his father’s house for some years, he tried to be quiet as he snuck up the stairs to his room, so as not to wake Mrs. Muir—even as he knew it was an unrealistic goal. Mrs. Muir heard and saw everything. Truly, the spymaster should pull her into his employ, but then Mrs. Muir was much too kindhearted for the business of spying, even if she tried very hard to make it seem otherwise.
Truly, Dom enjoyed his life. Nothing was terribly pressing. His house was secure and he had an income to live off. His father would say it was time to turn his thoughts to marriage, but the desire hadn’t struck him yet. Quiet domesticity simply didn’t appeal, not when he was enjoying his bachelorhood so fully. Because if there was marriage, there would be children, and being a disciplinarian simply wasn’t in his nature. His house would likely be mayhem.
That wasn’t to say that he didn’t pay attention to the women presented into society. All of them beautiful and sweet, but none of them had stirred him into changing his life.
The truth was also that many of them were out of his grasp. His modest income wouldn’t be acceptable to most fathers of courtly debutants. It was a truth he’d learned to accept. While his brother had inherited the title and the estate, Dom had to get by with the generosity of relatives. Second sons tended to take care of the seconds sons in the family. He wished to do the same one day, which meant that he needed to grow his modest income into something more substantial. Clever investments had increased productivity of his land. There were opportunities to pursue with investments, but he was taking his time to learn rather than jumping in to lose his shirt.
There was a little bit of purpose behind his leisurely evenings around town. Networks and relationships were important. Those very friendships and acquaintances put him in a position to hear things, to be introduced to interesting people who viewed the world differently. While the first son’s aim was to protect the family legacy, the second son could treat opportunities and risks more freely.
Maybe he would go see his brother in the morning. At times he missed Cornelius, even as he was growing increasingly stuffy and rigid. Family was important.
Falling backwards onto the bed, he kicked off his boots and let his body relax. The last of a fire still made a mellow glow in the room, its heat absorbed into the walls and furnishings. Oblivious sleep called, gently tugging on his wakefulness. This part of the evening he loved too, being tired and having nothing more to do, except undress and pull the warm blankets over him.
A snuffle at the door told him Socrates had found him, the elderly white dog that had been with him since boyhood. Who needed a wife when there was the steady loyalty of a dog, he thought as he rose and let the dog in. Socrates quickly jumped up on the bed and turned around three times before finding a suitable spot.
“You’d take all the bed if I let you. Make space.”
Reluctantly, the dog got up again, and when Dom was undressed and in bed, the canine slipped under the sheets as well.
The noise started before dawn and Celesta got no peace. But as she looked out the window, she saw no commotion. It was just very noisy outside, mostly with people passing on the street below. Leading a horse and cart, a carriage passing. Where were everyone going this early in the morning? It wasn’t as if they had fields to tend.
City life was a mystery to her. She didn’t know what people did. In her county, she knew just about everyone, and they all had a role in the community. Sadness hit her again, because it wasn’t her home anymore. She was thrown out of the community now. Even as she’d been the landowner’s daughter, and privileged in most regards, her position in the community had been more precarious than most. Then again, even if her father hadn’t died, it had never been the intention that she stay in the area. Marriage was her future, and it would with all certainty be to someone who lived in another county.
Therefore, she had no right to be upset that so much change had happened to her. It had been bound to happen. Still, it felt so very shocking.
Lightness grew in the sky as she looked out the small diamonds of the leaded window. The morning seemed to be gray, and across the street, she saw the trail of smoke rising from chimneys.
It was another world in the city, and she had no idea what life would be like here. Part of her was eager to experience it, while another part wanted to wail that her father had left her like this.
Even she knew that her relationship with her father hadn’t been terribly close. They had gotten on well, but not in the way she saw other fathers in her community. Her father was an earl and there were heavy requirements on him. He couldn’t spend a great deal of time with her. It was just how it had been. Great responsibility came with the title, which meant something had to be sacrificed.
Cold had seeped into her and she quietly snuck back into her bed, which had lost some of its heat. Edith still slept on her cot. Nothing bothered Edith when she slept, and Celesta was a little envious of it.
Pulling the blankets up, she stared up at the canopy of her bed, trying unsuccessfully to return to sleepiness. Somewhere downstairs, she heard someone moving around. Probably lighting the kitchen fires. This house was large, but not as large as Willowby Hall, which was built with stone. Nothing of the kitchen activities were heard from upstairs.
A sigh escaped her and she sat up in the bed, trying to keep the blankets around her as she did. Back home, if she woke up early, she would go into the garden if it was a sunny day and maybe visit the chickens.
Edith snuffled in her sleep, then shifted. “What time is it?”
“It’s just at dawn.”
With a groan, she lay down and pulled her blankets over her, but Celesta was too excited to sleep. The city was awakening. There were so many people. All the things she’d only ever heard about—the galleries, the shops, the chocolate shops. Society was fine and extensive in the city from what her father had told her. There were so many people he’d known. Friends, even lovers.
According to her governess, her father had been much too liberal with the things he’d told her. Affairs and illicit love between people who weren’t married. Miss Parkwright had particularly objected to that being mentioned. In the older woman’s view, that was the behavior of compromised people.
On the other hand, father disapproved of Miss Parkwright’s prudish views, but he never replaced her. At times, it even seemed like he enjoyed it.
There was nothing untoward between Miss Parkwright and her father, that much she was certain of. Miss Parkwright would never allow it, and saw it as her duty to guard Celesta against her father’s more liberal upbringing. But it had been liberal in words only. At no point had she been taken to London to visit, or anywhere else. These things might be mentioned, but Celesta had never experienced anything close to it. However, he had said he would invite her to court when she was old enough, and that was the most debauched place in the city according to his own telling.
But right now, the city itself was right outside her window. “Get up, Edith. Let’s go outside.”
Again Edith snuffled and then moaned. “It’s not going anywhere.”
“Aren’t you excited? We’re in the city. There are markets.”
“We have markets back home,” Edith grumbled, and Celesta sighed. Edith missed home.
“I know. But we’re here now. Might as well see what the city has to offer. There are galleries and art. Royal academies. Miss Parkwright would love it.”
“Well, maybe she’ll turn up here with her next employer,” Edith said. Unfortunately no one knew what would happen. They had all been cast to the wind, it seemed. But she had promised to write once she’d secured a new position.
“Come on. Let’s go out and explore,” Celesta urged. “It looks like it will be a beautiful day.”
“Alright, fine,” Edith conceded and got out of her cot and dressed, while Celesta continued with her morning routine. This morning, she felt the excitement of her future. It wasn’t as if she was finished with her mourning, but she was taking a moment away from it. It was possible to both be missing her father and life back at Willowby Hall, and also be a little excited about being in a new place.
The house was quiet downstairs, and unexpectedly, the front door was locked. That wasn’t usual at home, but this was the city. Her father had said one had to lock the doors.
“Let’s try the back,” Celesta said, taking Edith by the hand as they quickly walked through the house, trying to find the door to the back. Before long, they found a small courtyard in the back with a stable. It was cobbled, so there was nothing like a garden. It was a purely functional space, where the house’s business was managed. There looked to be some kind of washroom on the other end of the courtyard. In addition, there was a carriage gate with a smaller door cut into it, and they made their way out as a young man was bringing cut wood into the yard.
“At least there is some outside space,” Edith said, who liked to sit in the sun on a cold morning. No doubt, she’d find some place to perch for that purpose in the small courtyard.
The street they emerged to seemed very functional in nature too. Meant for carts and carriages and served the houses lined on both sides of the street. In addition, it was also where the sewage ran from the houses, giving the street a less than pleasant smell.
“I think we’ll insist on the front door in the future,” Edith said.
“I didn’t want to disturb Lord Vanhence. He might be a late riser.” Celesta’s father certainly had been.
Soon enough, they were beyond the more functional alley behind the house and onto a proper street. Now she had no idea where to go. This wasn’t like Chicherley where it was immediately obvious where the center of the village was. In fact, she saw no church spires peek through the roofline in every direction.
“Maybe we should just see where this street goes,” Edith said, seemingly a little daunted with the scale of the city. Usually Edith was the one who wasn’t daunted, but she was clearly not comfortable in London. “If we stick to this road, we can surely find our way back. Do you think we can ask where Lord Vanhence lives and people will know?”
That was a good question. Maybe there were too many people for that. “Let’s just remember where we came out from. I’m sure I’ll remember the house if we come across it.”
Granted, there seemed to be some similar houses along the road, but not similar enough that Celesta couldn’t tell them apart. “Perhaps for next time, I can ask Lord Vanhence to show me a map of the city. I should have brought Father’s, but I didn’t think of it.” In all the rush. And technically, the map didn’t belong to her anymore. Nothing belonged to her, except the trunk she’d come with.
Well, that wasn’t true. She had wealth, even if she couldn’t touch or see it. The things that had been hers weren’t anymore. Her father’s man of business had said she was wealthy now, but she didn’t know what that meant. It certainly hadn’t meant she could stay at Willowby Hall.
These thoughts distracted her for a moment while they walked. They reached some shops, which were dark spaces behind grimy windows. They weren’t nearly as exciting as Celesta had expected. An apothecary of some kind, and a haberdashery. Further along was a coffee house.
More interesting were the people, who all looked strange and hurried. Their clothes were finer than she was used to seeing. Ahead of them, a woman came out of a house wearing an elaborate silk dress as she walked from her house to the waiting carriage.
“She must be a lady,” Edith said. The amount of lace suggested someone very wealthy.
While she had some fine dresses in her trunk, Celesta had nothing of that caliber. “The dressmakers in London must be very skilled.”
“I think we should go back now,” Edith said. “If we wander too far, we won’t find our way back.”
It felt as though they’d only explored one street, and half of that, to boot, but Edith was right. They had walked a while. “Alright, fine,” Celesta agreed as she saw a cart with animal carcasses drive past. It was a strange city. Every person, every job and status seemed to exist on the same streets. The fine lady and the butcher traveled the same space to get wherever they were going. Everyone lived and worked in such a confined space, it seemed, and the houses had to be havens from the tumultous outdoors.
They started walking back and Celesta grew a little worried until Lord Vanhence’s house came into view. Not that she’d admit it, and as she’d hoped, she recognized the house from the fifty they’d passed already.
But when they came to the carriage gate in the alley they had snuck out of, they found it firmly closed.
Edith looked at her before knocking. It took a while, but a confused stable lad let them in without argument.
“There you are,” said a woman Celesta vaguely recalled from the previous evening. “We were wondering what happened to you. Lord Vanhence would like a word about you running off at the crack of dawn. Had us all worried.”
It hadn’t occurred to Celesta that their absence would be noticed, less so cause a commotion. “We should have said we were going for a walk,” Celesta said, and the woman crossed her arms as if they were naughty children who’d been caught doing something they shouldn’t.
“Lord Vanhence is in the study,” the woman said, and Celesta nodded and smiled, still feeling as if she’d done something wrong. Had she done something wrong?
“I will go see him,” Celesta said and threw Edith a look before walking into the house. The study wasn’t hard to find, opposite the salon with high windows out to the street. Mr. Vanhence sat at his desk and looked up as she approached the door.
“Miss Wiltham. You had us worried,” he said, repeating the housekeeper’s statement.
“We just wanted to see some of the city.”
“Naturally,” he said, urging her to sit in the chair in front of the desk. “But the city really isn’t a safe place. Not like Willowby Hall. I’m sure you’re used to leaving the house as you please, but you need to take care in London, or you will find yourself knocked out in some back alley, or worse. There are villains here who will kill for the cloth in your dress. You must take care. I have to insist that you leave the house with proper security.”
“I had my maid.”
Sitting back, he took her in. “It’s, of course, natural that you are curious. I can take you on a tour of the city, if you like.”
“That would be wonderful.”
“Perhaps later this afternoon. I, unfortunately, have work I must attend to this morning. I understand you haven’t breakfasted yet. You should do so before cook has to worry about other things.”
“Yes, of course,” Celesta said, feeling herself chided for her thoughtless behavior. “The city is very different from the country.”
“And you will learn the ways of it soon enough. Until then, I beg you to not leave the house without a proper guard, and I will venture to do so myself as often as I can. There is much to see and do, but we must do so safely. I will be very remiss in my promise to your father if I don’t see to your safety.”
“Thank you, Lord Vanhence. I am grateful for everything you are doing for me.”
He smiled and then poured himself a small glass of claret. “I’m sure this won’t be too confining for you. We will do our best. Now, go see what Mrs. Blicken has for you.”
“Thank you, Lord Vanhence,” she said again.
He wasn’t nearly as admonishing as Mrs. Foster had suggested, and Celesta understood that she’d been foolish setting off with just Edith as company. She’d be more careful in the future, but was very excited about the prospect of a tour of the city in the afternoon. If she’d learned anything from this morning’s venture, it was that the city was too large to simply wander through blindly. A guide was a much preferable way of getting to know the city.
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