Book 5 in the >Brethren Series
In the next Brethren installment, a clever spinster is matched with a traitor to the Crown.
The death of her father leaves Miss Francesca Cornworthy….alone, and with one last wish to fulfill—that she marry a safe, respectable gentleman. She sets herself on a course to honor that request. That is until she crosses paths with Mr. Lathan Holman—the very opposite type of gentleman her father wished her to wed.
After one mistake earned him the title of traitor, Lathan Holman has no interest in reentering society. Then he meets a quick-witted, sharp-mouthed spinster. His dark past clouds his present and future. He’d been certain he’d never laugh or smile again…but it isn’t long before, he finds himself doing both with Miss Francesca Cornworthy…and wanting more.
Winter, 1822 – England
Miss Francesca Cornworthy hated house parties.
To be fair, she’d come to despise all ton events.
But she had a particular loathing for house parties.
At least, in the heart of a London Season in bustling ballrooms, a spinster might lose herself in a crowd. In a sea of debutantes and other unwed ladies, there were any number of other unfortunate souls to find themselves the object of pity and scorn and bored indifference.
House parties were different. There could be no going unnoticed at those intimately attended events.
This winter, however, she was to be spared. No invite had arrived from her godmother. That customary note had always come two months before the grand affair, with the same assurance as the rising and setting sun.
And yet, miserable as she was at those gatherings and as much as she hated being an object on display at them, she’d have happily attended. She’d have donned her brightest gown and worn her biggest smile if her father could have been there.
Sadness seized at her heart, squeezing.
It had been six months.
Six months since her father’s passing.
And with the hell that had been his final year, it would have been only selfish on her part to wish he were with her still. But the man who’d left her had been an empty shadow of the father who’d loved and raised her.
Standing at the windows that overlooked the now overgrown gardens out back, Francesca stared below.
She was a woman without a husband or a father to care after her, and in such situations, most of what a viscount possessed ended up passing to another: a distant relative in this case. As such, Francesca’s father had provided for her… as he could. There was a modest townhouse just on the fringe of Mayfair. There were enough funds for a small staff. And also funds enough to see her if not comfortable, then cared for through the remainder of her days.
It was far more than most women had.
That did not, however, preclude her from the sting of resentment at the lot of women in a world where everything passed to men. Including the artifacts that meant nothing to the new lord, but for the women left behind were tokens of the mother they’d never met or the father they’d so loved.
She rested her forehead against the cool windowpane and sighed. The sough of her breath left a little circle of moisture upon the glass.
Not that she required any “things.” She didn’t. She’d never been one for material possessions. Her life, for so very long, had been her father. In fact, that was all it really had ever been. As a young girl without a mother and then a young lady without a suitor and then a woman without a husband, her life had become entwined with her father’s. As such, all of this… an existence without him… was foreign. She was as at sea as she’d been six months ago when he’d first passed.
A knock sounded at the door, briefly raising her focus away from her own sorrows.
“Enter,” she called quietly.
Her butler, gracious old Callows, who’d even taken a reduction in salary so that he might remain on, stepped forward. “Her Grace, the Duchess of Sutton, to see you, Miss Francesca.”
Oh, bloody hell.
This was even worse than a summons to any annual holiday party… an actual visit from her godmother.
Framed at the entrance of the room, the regal duchess stood as elegant as a queen—and as frosty as one, too. Her godmother sent one thin, razor-sharp eyebrow arcing up, compelling Francesca to speak at last. “Your Grace,” Francesca greeted and made her legs move in the requisite motion of the deferential curtsy. It wasn’t that she didn’t like her godmother. Quite the opposite, really.
Rather, it was the powerful woman’s intent to maneuver Francesca about like a pawn upon a chessboard. Her intentions were good. Her efforts, however, were unwanted and unappreciated.
The Duchess of Sutton came forward with the graceful eloquence that only a woman who’d been betrothed and destined for the role of duchess might manage. “Francesca,” she said, all perfunctory business.
As Callows drew the door closed behind him, the click of the panel drove away the earlier misery and forced Francesca to be as sharp as a tack.
“You’re attending my winter party.”
Francesca shook her head.
A droll grin curved the duchess’ lips. “It wasn’t a question, my dear.” She managed to stretch the endearment into four syllables.
Nay, a duchess would never anticipate being challenged in any way. Francesca, however, had little intention of subjecting herself to the duchess’ house party this year. Or mayhap any year. Francesca smoothed her mourning skirts. “I appreciate that kindness and consideration.”
“Having my goddaughter for a winter stay is hardly a kindness.”
Francesca continued past that interruption. “However, my father—”
“Would not have wanted you to shut yourself away, alone, here, Franny.” The duchess abandoned formality and opted instead for the familiar—if much-hated—endearment. Francesca’s father had preferred it above all others, and unfortunately, Society marched to the beat of the drum set by a father or husband, so “Franny” she’d been and would always now be.
Francesca held her silence. The duchess might be her godmother, but their relationship was only as close as one could be with one of the most powerful peeresses in England.
Her godmother claimed a seat. “Securing your visit is hardly the reason I’ve come.” She smiled. “Because, of course, you are coming.” Of course. “Rather,” the duchess went on, tugging her gloves off and lining up the fine leather articles before she lay them neatly upon the rose-inlaid table, “I’m here to help.”
Francesca’s stomach fell, and horror chased away every last vestige of earlier sorrow. “Help?”
The elegant woman gave a tight nod. “Well, of course. I’m not just here about my house party.”
Warning bells clamored, loud and jarring and pointed.
Because, ultimately, when an unwed lady and a duchess were about, there was only one fate the latter wished to concern herself over.
The duchess smiled and nodded expectantly.
Francesca finally found her voice. “I… am grateful to you for coming…” she began again.
“Pfft, stuff it with that polite rejection, Francesca Cornworthy,” the other woman said without inflection and also with such an absolute lack of duchesslike decorum that Francesca’s carefully crafted response flew from her head. “You believe it best that you shut yourself away here, in your widow’s weeds, mourning your father and not living your life. And I am here to tell you that is not what your father wished for you.” The duchess patted the spot beside her.
Francesca fisted the sides of her skirts. Who was the Duchess of Sutton to say what her father might have wished for in his final days? In the last six months of his life, he’d not even a recollection of Francesca’s name. He’d been alternately confused and angry, and she’d suffered the pain of losing him even as he’d still been living. Even so, she’d never been impolite to her godmother—or anyone, really—and she’d not begin now. No matter how miserable she was.
“Now, there is a reason all wise mothers and fathers know to name me as godmother.”
Francesca bit the inside of her lower lip to hide a smile at that very matter-of-fact avowal that only a woman of the utmost confidence might manage.
“Because they know, my dear, that I will ensure that their daughters do not remain… well, as you have, alone. Six months I’ve allowed you. And neither I nor your father would allow you one month more.”
With a grand flourish, the duchess retrieved several folded pages from within the front pocket of her silvery-gray satin gown.
Francesca glanced down at the ivory sheets. “What…” Her words trailed off as she fixed on just one thing in the middle of the folded packet: her name. Nay, it wasn’t her inked name upon it, but rather, the familiar hand.
Oh, it was slightly uneven. The looping flourish that had once been so grand showed the unsteadiness of the fingers that had written those words. And yet, that handwriting would always be familiar.
Fisting a hand, Francesca raised it to her mouth. And here she’d believed she’d had everything there was left of her father.
The duchess did not press Francesca, but rather, waited until Francesca accepted the heavy letter. Francesca managed just one word: “When?”
“The moment he began forgetting himself and his thoughts, he became afraid,” the duchess said gently. “I tried to assure him he was fine. We all forget ourselves sometimes. He insisted this was different.” She drew her shoulders back. “And this proved the one time I was wrong.”
Francesca managed a smile, one she didn’t bother to try to hide. She would have wagered every link she had to Papa that the duchess had sought to elicit that grin.
“Franny, your father wanted to be sure that he said everything there was to be said, in the event he forgot more of himself. He put it there and insisted on several things. One”—she lifted a finger—“that I give that to you. Two, that I not ever leave you to yourself.” She bristled. “As if I ever would.” A third digit came up. “Three, that you’d still join me at my annual events, as you loved them so very much.”
Francesca didn’t move for a moment, and she would have sworn there was a dry edge to that slightly overemphasized word. Except, lifting her gaze, she searched for some hint that the duchess teased, for a sign that the older woman knew precisely how Francesca felt about those affairs. Alas, when she lifted her gaze, the duchess wore her usual serene and very even expression.
“And fourthly,” Her Grace said, “there was the matter of your wedded state.”
Francesca’s eyebrows went flying up. There it was. “M-my…” She strangled on the word.
The door opened as Francesca struggled to get the remainder of her reply out.
The duchess beamed. “Ah, splendid.” She motioned the young maid, Tess, forward. “Tea.”
Yes, because no moment in any English household was complete without the requisite brew. And yet, the Duchess of Sutton should so casually pour herself a cup from the porcelain teapot after she’d just said… after she’d just said…
“Marriage?” Francesca blurted.
Tess paused, casting a befuddled look between the two women. “Beg pardon, miss?” she asked hesitantly.
Her Grace clapped once. “That will be all.”
With a relieved glance, Tess dropped a hasty curtsy and scurried off.
“Now, where were we?” the duchess said as she added sugar to her delicate cup and proceeded to stir it.
“We were speaking of my father,” Francesca hurriedly supplied.
“Ah, that is right… marriage. Your marriage.”
Her head still muddled, Francesca said the only thing that did make sense. “I’m not married.”
From over the rim of the teacup she’d partially raised, the duchess flashed another smile. “That is precisely the point, my dear.”
The Duchess of Sutton took another dainty sip. “Ensuring you at last marry a kindly, respectable, devoted, and loyal gentleman.”
Had any other woman put those very words to her, Francesca would have happily pointed out that those latter two descriptors meant the very same thing.
Her father’s notes briefly forgotten, Francesca lowered them to her lap. “Your Grace, there are no kindly, respectable, devoted gentlemen. Not for me.” Not where she was concerned. At thirty years of age, she’d taken part in all but one London Season over the past twelve years. There’d never been a betrothed. Why, there’d not even been a suitor. Not even the casual sort to beg a dance one day, pay a visit the next, and then disappear on the third.
“Ah.” The duchess wagged another long digit. “But there is someone for everyone, my dear. And your father would not have been your father had he not at least considered that before he passed.” Her godmother lifted her chin. “The top page, my dear.”
Dutifully raising the packet, Francesca unfolded and read the top page.
My dearest Franny,
If you are reading this, it is as I feared, and my memory has now failed me, and I am now gone.
Her throat moved spasmodically, the letter trembling in her fingers, and she tightened her hold upon it to steady her grip.
In yet another break with her usual decorum, the duchess rested a hand upon Francesca’s knee. “I promise the remainder is a good deal less sad,” she murmured.
Francesca resumed reading.
It has always been my greatest wish that you would know the love and happiness shared by your mother and I.
Yes, that, too, had been Francesca’s wish. Though she’d never met the mother who’d given her life, she’d listened over the years to telling after telling and then retelling that her father had shared of that happy union. And she’d wanted all of that for herself. But now she’d not allow herself any more of that regret about her circumstances, with which she’d come to terms, if not to peace.
It is also my belief that you still can and will know that joy-ever-after. And though you did not yourself find the gentleman who might be that and bring that for you, I have.
As if singed, Francesca dropped the letter. It fell in a soft, whispery heap onto her lap. The duchess had been correct. The letter left by her father was a good deal less sad, but certainly no less horrifying and troubling and… well, every other manner of word ending in ing that denoted distressing sentiments.
“He is the Marquess of St. James, my dear. In need of a good wife as much as you are in need of a good husband. It is, therefore, a match made in English heaven.”
In a place given to rain and where its inhabitants were equally bent on marrying people off and gossiping, was there such a thing as an “English heaven”?
Alas, by the pleased coloring to the older woman’s tones, this was where Francesca was to express her proper gratitude… and offer her capitulation. “I do not know what to say.” There, that much was true. Making herself pick up Papa’s letter once again, she forced herself to continue reading.
I was a friend of his father’s some years ago, and I’m familiar with the gentleman, so you have my assurance that you will be cared for. And in the end, that is all I want, my dear Franny—to see that you are cared for.
Just like that, the immediate rejection she’d intended to give was caught and held back by that last sentence.
And in the end, that is all I want, my dear Franny—to see that you are cared for.
It had been his last wish for her. Of her. One that whenever he’d been cognizant and lucid, he’d attempted to bring it up, and she’d refused to speak of.
Guilt sat like a boulder upon her chest. That one assurance Papa had sought, she’d not given him. And now… he should ask her now. Tears smarted behind her eyes, and she was dimly aware of the duchess pressing a kerchief into her spare palm.
Francesca brushed back the moisture.
“You do not have to marry him, Franny,” the duchess said softly. “I would urge you, however, to join me this winter for my house party, where you might spend time alone with the gentleman and ascertain whether he is a fit for you.”
Whether he is a fit for you.
They might as well have been speaking of a pair of lady’s riding boots. Granted, a pastime that she’d never pursued.
And yet, saying no now was vastly more different and difficult than it had been mere moments ago.
“You don’t have to decide now, of course,” the duchess murmured. “But I’d have you think on it… when you join me.”
A short while later, after the requisite tea had been drunk and the small talk exchanged, the Duchess of Sutton left. As soon as she’d gone, Francesca carried her letter over to the window and reread the top page.
Nay, there’d been no imagining or mistaking either the contents or the visit.
Papa wished her to marry. Even in the hereafter, he was concerned first and foremost with her future and well-being. Giving her head a shake, she absently turned to the next sheet.
Now, my dear, this isn’t all a matter of security. I’d also have you think about your happiness and what that means. You’ve been a dutiful daughter, and sadly, I’ve not ever properly allowed you the opportunity to pursue your own life apart from my own.
Francesca had done it without complaint, and she’d do it all over again.
And as Patrick M. Carlisle wrote in Unfair & Unbalanced: The Lunatic Magniloquence of Henry E. Panky, “So, anyway, a Great Man, in his querulous twilight years, who doesn’t want to go gently into that blacky black night. He wants to cut loose, dance on the razor’s edge, pry the lid off his bucket list!” With all that being said, I am leaving behind a list of items for you to complete, things to bring you to a smile.
A half laugh, half sob escaped her. In death, he’d quoted his favorite book. One he’d read over and over, which she’d never understood, because, well, what was the fun in that when one could read an altogether different book?
Returning to her seat, Francesca began to read the list her father had created for her.