Authors: Kristina Cook
Glenfield, Essex, 1810
It was happening again
A blinding flash of lightning illuminated the dark space where Jane Rosemoor cowered
. She shut her eyes against the burst of light, covering her ears with her hands as the crack of thunder rent through the night. The storm raged on outside, echoing the storm that raged within her.
“Jane,” Susanna cried as she peered under the coverlet
. “Please, what’s wrong?”
Jane huddled further still beneath the bedding, not wanting to talk to anyone, not even her sister
. “I...I just wish to be alone, that’s all.”
“You’ve been hidden away for hours
. Aren’t you hungry? Won’t you come out?”
Jane listened as rain and wind lashed at the windows, rattling the shutters
. She said nothing. Hot tears scalded her eyes, burning a fiery path down her cheeks. If Susanna were to see her face, she’d surely glimpse the despair that gripped her. Jane couldn’t explain it, wouldn’t speak of it.
“No,” she finally managed to say
. “Please, just...just go.”
She listened as Susanna sighed heavily and then made her way back across the room, her slippers shuffling across the bare floorboards
. The reluctant footsteps paused a beat, then resumed their noisy path toward the door that separated the girls’ bedchambers. At last the door clicked shut as another flash of lightning lit the night.
Jane took a deep, steadying breath, trying desperately to quell her trembling hands as the accompanying clap of thunder reverberated off the walls
It wasn’t the storm that frightened her
. No, it was the heavy veil of despair that had dropped across her heart, making her feel hopeless, helpless. It had happened before, more than once. What was wrong with her? But she knew. She
She’d heard them whispering again, just last night, about Grandmama
. Her parents only spoke of Grandmama when they thought no one was about, that no children were around to hear the hushed words. But Jane had heard them. She’d stood frozen outside her mother’s room, late at night and long after she was supposed to be tucked into bed.
“It’s worsening,” her mother had whispered behind the closed door
. “Aunt Gertrude says Mama no longer leaves her room.” Her mother sniffled loudly. Was she weeping? Her father made faint clucking noises, as if he were comforting her.
“And what of your poor sister Susan?” he’d asked.
“There’s no doubt she’s afflicted as well.” Her mother blew her nose. “It’s gotten progressively worse with the birth of each child, same as Mama. I just don’t know what to do.”
“There’s nothing you can do, my dear
. But I don’t think you should take the children to Derbyshire this year.”
“No, of course not
. It will do no good for the children to see her in this state. We can no longer pretend she is ill each and every time we visit. They’re getting much too old, and they’re certain to ask questions. Especially Jane. She’s so sensitive as it is, just like...” Her mother’s last words were muffled by sobs.
“Jane is but twelve, Elizabeth, just an adolescent
. All adolescent girls are sensitive and...”
Jane could no longer listen
. She had fled on silent feet to her own room. She’d lain awake most of the night and remained abed all day, feigning a headache, unable to face her family’s solicitous attentions.
Whatever was wrong with Grandmama
? And with her Aunt Susan? She didn’t know, didn’t understand the words, but knew it was something dreadful. Something that couldn’t be spoken aloud.
But what frightened her most was the thought that whatever it was, she was victim to it, too; that the occasional bouts of melancholy that all but paralyzed her were the first symptoms of some terrible, unspeakable affliction
Her mind raced
toward the obvious conclusion–they were mad, Aunt Susan and Grandmama. And if they were, was she doomed to madness as well? Was that what her mother meant to say–just like
? Jane pressed her face into the mattress as fresh tears flowed with a vengeance, her heart twisted into a knot of terror.
She would never speak of it, this darkness she felt from time to time
. It would remain her most tightly guarded secret. From this day forward, she would try her best to put on a cheerful face, no matter what she felt in her heart. No one could know that she was surely going mad, as mad as her grandmother and aunt.
And from the hushed conversations she’d overheard, it was obvious that the condition worsened with childbirth
. There was only one solution, then. Her twelve-year old mind resolved at once that she’d never marry, never bear children.
The glass in the windows began to rattle against the storm’s onslaught, and Jane shuddered
She didn’t want to end up like her grandmother, locked away in her room
. Or worse yet, Bedlam. She’d heard about the mad souls locked away in that horrible place, screaming and rolling in their own filth. No, she couldn’t go there.
All she had to do was smile.
Richmond Park, Derbyshire, 1824
“I’m at my wits’ end, Tolland. The child needs more than I can give her.” Hayden Moreland, the Earl of Westfield, dropped his head into his hands with a sigh. His stomach churned uncomfortably. He hated finding himself in such a position. He’d never been so unsure of anything in all his years. It was insupportable.
“Yes, you’ve definitely gotten yourself into a bind, haven’t you, old boy?” Cecil Tolland chuckled, the sound pricking each and every one of Hayden’s nerves
Hayden reached up to squeeze his brow, hoping to ease the dull throb that was steadily increasing in strength and intensity
. “Miss Crosley is a fine governess, but Madeline needs more. She needs the influence of a lady, a proper lady. Your wife has been wonderful to her, of course, but soon she’ll be occupied with her own infant.”
“Emily adores Madeline,” Tolland offered
. “No doubt her attentions will continue after our child is born.”
Hayden rose and began to pace a circuit across the library’s floor
. His hands, balled into fists, were shoved roughly into his coat pockets. “I should never have taken Madeline in. I should have turned her right over to the foundling home as everyone reasonable suggested. There are no assurances she’s even my brother’s child.”
Yet Hayden knew in his heart that the girl was his niece
. One only had to look into her mossy green eyes to see the striking familial resemblance. “Damn Thomas. And damn Sophia. Why did she beg me to take her child?”
“Because she knew what kind of man you are, a far cry from your brother
. She knew you’d give her a good home, send her off to a fine school. Because she was dying and didn’t want her daughter to end up on the streets–or worse yet, a brothel.”
“It was a rhetorical question,” Hayden bit out through clenched teeth
“You’ll pardon me, then,” Tolland retorted, an irritating smile visible at the corners of his mouth
Didn’t Tolland realize the graveness of the situation
? As usual, Thomas had made a mess of things, and Hayden had been left to tidy up after his brother. Things would be far less complicated if only Thomas had married Sophia. Hayden had taken an enormous risk, taking in the child. The entire
had known of his brother’s long association with the beautiful opera singer, yet Thomas refused to take any responsibility for his illegitimate offspring. At the time, taking in the child had seemed a simple solution.
Hayden had found it impossible to deny the dying woman, to refuse the infant placed tenderly in his arms
. He had the means, after all, and he didn’t give a damn what the
thought. Richmond Park was a far cry from Mayfair, and few took notice that he’d taken in his ‘niece.’ He’d hired a capable nursemaid, added a governess to his staff, and had rarely been aware of the infant’s presence in the enormous house. But as she grew older, he could no longer ignore her presence. Madeline was a fearful, cowering little thing, and he hadn’t any idea what to do with her. She needed attention, a measure of affection, and he didn’t know how to give it to her–
give it to her. For her own good.
Hayden glared at Tolland and poured himself a sherry, downing the liquid with one stiff jerk of the wrist.
“Are you really so obtuse, Westfield? Don’t you see the solution when it’s so plain? A wife, old boy. You need a wife.”
Hayden choked on the drink, sputtering amber droplets onto his starched white cravat
. “Don’t be absurd.”
? Why, it’s the only solution, and a sensible one at that.”
“I have no desire to take a wife at present,” Hayden said stiffly
. “I’m done with all that.” He set down his glass and took out his watch, polishing its face with his coattails.
“Come now, Westfield, you’re likely the richest man in all of Derbyshire
. I imagine they’re all beating down your door, wanting to be mistress of Richmond Park. You can’t blame them for seeing pound notes when they look at you.”
“Katherine didn’t,” he said, his chest tight
Tolland’s gaze met his, and he waited a beat before replying
. “Perhaps, but Katherine grew up with the certainty of becoming your wife.”
And now she was gone, dead for almost a decade
. The sweet, sensible girl Hayden had been betrothed to in infancy. Dead, just days before their wedding. Taken at such a tender age, like his sister Isabel. Like his mother. Like every woman he’d ever loved. Devil take it, he was cursed.
He snapped shut the watch and returned it to his pocket
. “I’m not marrying.” He strode to the window and gazed out, his chest swelling with pride as he took in the sight of his estate’s vast park–rolling, manicured acres giving way to dense wood. It was his, all his. As far as the eye could see. The finest land in all of Derbyshire.
? Balderdash. Of course you can, and you will. Do you truly want Richmond Park passing to your sorry excuse for a brother? The estate will be bankrupt in less than a year’s time, and you know it. You need an heir. Madeline needs someone to mother her. Whether or not she’s your niece is immaterial. You’ve taken her in–she’s your ward, your responsibility.”
Hayden’s mind cast about for another solution
–anything else. Something more reasonable. He came up annoyingly blank. Bloody hell, as much as he loathed the idea, Tolland was right. A wife. He needn’t love her–couldn’t love her. But a sensible woman to produce an heir and mother his ward...
Perhaps it would do
. Hayden slumped into a worn, leather chair. “And where do you propose I find a wife? None of the maids in this district will do.”
“What about Lady Millicent Sunderland?”
“Surely you jest? She’s without a doubt the most insensible woman I’ve ever met.”
“The Viscount Stanley’s daughter, then
? The eldest one. Very sensible girl, quite bookish, if that’s what you want.”
“A spinster with the face of a horse.” Hayden brushed a speck of dust from his sleeve
. “I can do better than a woman no other man wants.”
Tolland threw his hands up in obvious frustration. “Go to London, then
. Make the rounds, meet the debutantes. Surely
He tapped his fingers on the arm of the chair
. “I suppose so. I don’t normally partake in the social aspects of the Season, but perhaps I could.” The very idea was distasteful at best.
“Well, chin up, old boy
. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and a promising candidate will waltz through your front door and offer herself up.” Tolland threw his head back and laughed.
Hayden didn’t find it amusing, not in the least
. “Perhaps she will,” he muttered with a mutinous glare.
“I’m going, Mama, and that’s all there is to it. Nothing you can say will dissuade me.” Jane folded the letter and sealed it.
“But you can’t, dear, not by yourself.” Her mother fingered the quizzing glass that lay between her ample breasts
“I have no intention of going by myself
. Bridgette will accompany me.”
“Has no duties to attend to with me away from Glenfield
. She’s a perfectly acceptable chaperone. Cousin Emily’s husband will meet the post chaise and escort me to Ashbourne. Come now, Mama. I’m only going to visit family. Emily nears the end of her confinement and she welcomes the company.” Jane tapped the page lying before her on the escritoire. “She says so quite plainly. Besides, it’s a short drive from Emily’s home to The Orchards, and it’s been years since I’ve seen Grandmama and Auntie Gertrude. How can you deny me my own kin?”
“I’m not denying you anything, Jane
. But surely you realize that your Grandmama is not well–not herself. She is not fit for company. Her nerves cannot take it, cannot bear the excitement.”
. That was precisely why Jane must go–to see just what state her grandmother’s nerves were in, just what truth lay behind the whispered words and veiled hints at a mysterious malady that plagued the women of Jane’s mother’s family.
It was time to learn the truth
. Jane could no longer hide from it. She was six and twenty, a confirmed spinster by choice. She had turned down a shocking number of proposals over the years–perfectly acceptable offers at that–because she knew that marriage inevitably led to childbirth, and childbirth could push her over the brink toward some sort of madness. Oh, her own bouts of melancholy had mostly subsided once she reached womanhood, but she’d glimpsed the darkness, faced the frightening reality of overwhelming despair, and she feared anything at all could tip the balance.
No, she could not risk it
. Not till she saw for herself what her future might hold. Her family in Derbyshire held the clues she needed to piece together the puzzle, as no one would speak plainly about the situation–at least, not in her presence. She was forced to come to her own conclusions, frightening ones at that. She thought of her sister Susanna, perhaps the most happy, serene, even-tempered woman she knew. What were the odds that both sisters had escaped the family curse?
She was leaving, in three days’ time, and she would face her demons herself
. There was nothing else to be done.
“I’m sorry, Mama
. My mind is made up.”
Her mother sighed
. “So be it. You’re a sensible girl, Jane. I hope this isn’t some sort of mission to...to...” She trailed off, her faded eyes welling with tears.
“Mama!” Jane reached over and patted her mother’s plump hand
. “It’s only a visit, nothing more.”
“I fear I’ll never understand you, my dearest
. You’re so pretty, so popular. You’ve had men falling at your feet for years now, and yet you reject them all. Even William Nickerson, the dear boy. I thought for sure he would be the one to win your heart.”
“I cannot explain it, Mama
. Truly I cannot.” At least she
not. Putting her fears into words was much too terrifying. “But I’ve no wish to marry. Especially now, with Papa gone.” Jane’s eyes misted. “How could I leave you alone?”
“Oh, posh!” Her mother waved away her protestations
. “Haven’t I Susanna and her brood just a half-day’s drive from here? And Lucy at Covington Hall, just at the top of the road? You needn’t worry over me. Why, I’ve a mind to quit Glenfield altogether for most of the year and spend more time in London with my friends. Sometimes I feel as if this house holds too many memories. It’s almost a shame that Colin has taken up his own estate in Scotland and not forced us out.”
Jane’s heart twisted
. Was her mother so unhappy? She’d been so wrapped up in her own worries, in formulating her own plan, that she hadn’t even recognized her mother’s discontent. She clasped her hands together, her head bowed and her eyes squeezed shut to keep the tears at bay.
Her mother planted a kiss on the top of her head
. “Go, then, Jane. If it means so much to you, go.”
Jane looked up, her eyes brimming
. “Thank you, Mama. I’ll join you in Town by midsummer, I promise.”
Three months’ time
. She had three months to uncover the family’s deepest, darkest secrets–to learn what fate awaited her if she married. Jane swallowed a painful lump in her throat.
She only hoped the truth wasn’t worse than her imaginings.
Jane looked up at the yellow stone façade of her cousin’s home with a satisfied smile
. It was charming, a lovely, vine-traced manor just down the lane from the reputedly grand Richmond Park. She’d yet to glimpse the impressive estate, but the vast park they’d passed on the drive in from the village was nothing short of magnificent.
Emily’s husband Cecil guided her up the steps of his home and across the threshold, a smile illuminating his handsome, fair features
“Emily, darling, look who I’ve brought you,” he called out
Jane heard a squeal of delight followed by the tapping of slippers across a freshly polished floor
. In seconds Emily stood before her, round with child, her face flushed a pleasing pink.
“I can’t believe it
–is it really you? Cousin Jane, it’s been so very long!” The pretty woman, a good head shorter than Jane, threw her arms around her shoulders and embraced her.
“It’s so good to see you, Emily
. Why, we were only girls when we last met.”
“Yes.” Emily nodded, strawberry-blond curls dancing about her flushed face
. “I was no more than sixteen, for it was just after Mama passed away.”