James!” Augusta called out as her brother came tumbling through the doorway of the sitting room. He stumbled onto the floor to his knees, his coat half fallen from his shoulders and his waistcoat buttons misaligned. “What has happened?” She ran to collect him from the rug, but as she moved to place an arm around him, she recoiled back at the smell. “You’ve been drinking again.” “That I have, sweet sister,” his words were slurred as he pushed himself up, attempting to stand though swaying with the effort. “You need to stop this.” She helped him to his feet and walked away again. “Do you have any idea what you are doing to your own reputation?” She crossed her arms, tired of having to give the same lecture to her brother repeatedly. James tried to flatten his chestnut-colored brown hair. It was a trait they shared, his short and tufted, hers long and currently fastened at the top of her head with curls hanging down. He staggered across the room to the nearest chaise lounge, one of the few ornate pieces of furniture now left in the room. As he slumped down to sit, she covered her mouth with her hand, trying to stop herself from gasping at the sight. Around him, it was clear how bleak their fortunes had turned. The room that had been so grand in her father’s time now stood extremely sparse. The old Viscount Campten had kept the room decorated with the finest furniture, polished with gold brocade and plush chairs.
Either side of where James sat, there were now empty spaces where the furniture used to be. They had to sell them to help pay for some of his gambling debts. “Do not be angry at me, Augusta,” he slurred as he tilted his head back in the chair. “I have been drinking for a reason.” “I see no reason that would be good enough for this state of being. Have you lost your senses?” She turned to him, narrowing her hazel eyes. He merely raised his own eyes to hers with a shrug. “I have lost what was left.” “I beg your pardon?” She took another step towards him, nervous in case she had heard him wrong. “Tell me you have not been playing cards again?” “Oh, I have,” he covered his eyes with his hands.
“I have lost what was left of our fortune, sweet sister.” She looked between him and the floor for a minute, her eyes filling with unshed tears. She turned away from him at last, despair filling her as she covered her face. “In the name of the Lord,” she whispered, struggling to control her breathing. “What have you done, James? How could you do it?” “I was going to win this time. I was certain of it.” At the sound of his movement, she looked back to him, abating her tears before they could truly begin. He sat straight in the chair again and was attempting to straighten his clothes, but it had little effect. “As you did not win, your certainty baffles me.” “I had a good hand, believe me.
It was worth the gamble.” “Worth the gamble?” She marched towards him in outrage, hearing the click of her buckled shoes against the wooden floor. “I truly do now believe you have lost your sense. You thought our livelihood was worth the risk of a game of cards? Not only ours but our staff? What few staff we have left, we will be unable to pay. We will lose the house. We could have to go into service.” “Augusta –” He attempted to wave her away, but she had lost her temper entirely. “Do you have any idea to the extent that you have destroyed our lives?” His face cracked into sorrow, the cheeks quivering slightly. “Do not look at me like that. I cannot bear it,” he looked away from her down at his feet.
“I would like to see how you can bear it tomorrow morning when you wake up and realize you cannot afford food.” She paced around the room; certain she had never felt such anger in her life before. “Wait a moment, before you condemn me to the depths of hell, I do not believe this is our end.” “What do you mean?” She paused in her pacing. He slowly got to his feet, struggling to stand straight. “I believe that we can get the money back.” “Do not be so foolish, James.” She shook her head. “Do not tell me you plan to win it all back in another game of cards –” “That is not what I am saying.” “And no gentleman would just give the money back to you.
” “He may do if I was not the one to ask.” His words pulled her up short, she turned back to look at him. The curls of her hair that hung down from her updo swung around her neck with the movement. “What do you mean?” “I think that you should ask for it back.” He was sincere, imploring her with begging hands. She almost laughed at the idea, she scoffed and shook her head. “You would put me through that humiliation? Begging for a gentleman to take pity on you?” She stepped away from him again. “Whoever you lost to would no more return the money to me than you.” “Oh, I think he might.” “Why is that?” “Because I lost the money to Baron Bardolf.
” Augusta flicked her head back round to him again, her whole body suddenly freezing at the name. Lord Loftus Storey, Baron Bardolf. She had been once betrothed to the man. Her hands went to the stomach of her dress. She placed her fists against it, as though she could calm the sudden dancing of nerves behind it. Eight years ago, she had been betrothed to the Baron. They were to marry in the summer of that year. She had never loved a man so much and had never loved a man since. Yet that had all ended badly. “He would listen to you.
I am sure of it.” James kept talking, though she was barely listening anymore. She was remembering what the Baron had looked like, the feel of his hand in hers and the kisses they had shared in the shadows, while hiding from her chaperone. It seemed so long ago. “He would not listen to me.” She turned away again, hurrying to a seat. She sat primly, her spine straight in an effort to maintain a calm countenance though inside she was suffering turmoil. “He would, Augusta.” James moved to her side, but she would not look at him. “He has recently returned to town from his country estate.
I met him tonight at cards and he spoke of the move.” “I cannot believe you gambled with that man.” She shook her head, lowering her eyes to her hands as they fidgeted in her lap. “We will lose our home, James. For what? For the thrill of a round of cards?” “We are not doomed yet.” James moved closer towards her, begging her now, urging her to look at him. “He would listen to you if you reasoned with him. Go to his house, speak to him. Your old betrothal must have mattered to him a little before you ended it.” “You think I could manipulate any affection he had for me into saving our finances?” “I do.
” She scoffed again, looking away from him. “You are a greater fool than I ever thought you,” she bit her lip, detesting the thought of having to see the Baron. She could scarcely believe James would not only gamble their livelihood, but to also put it into the hands of such a man was unthinkable. “Why is he back in London?” Her curiosity got the better of her. She chastised herself as soon as she asked the question. “Why don’t you ask him yourself?” James was smiling as he sat back in the chair, his inebriated state taking over again. She stood and walked away from her brother, needing desperately to put distance between them. She could not help but think the Baron might have done such a thing on purpose. He had so willingly toyed with her heart all those years ago, happy to destroy not only her life but her hopes in love, it was perfectly possible that he would choose to destroy her again. Except this time, he was not just destroying her, but James too.
Her gaze drew unwillingly back to her brother. He was a fool. Still young, reckless, and an incessant gambler, but he was kind at heart. He was more protective of her than anyone she had ever known. She could not allow him to be destroyed by the Baron. She turned her eyes to the window, noting the clouds gathering outside as the night sky drew in. She straightened her spine and raised her chin high. If she were going to face this battle, she would not allow herself to crack. She would walk in and meet the man with strength, she would not show him how much he had hurt her. “Very well,” she whispered eventually, her eyes still on the murky clouds above.
“You will do it?” James’ voice came softly from behind her. “I will try,” she nodded, turning her head to the side slightly. “But you must not get your hopes up. Any…” She struggled for the right word, “any friendship between Baron Bardolf and I was destroyed many years ago. I doubt he would raise a finger to help me now. I will go to him tomorrow.” She looked away from her brother, back to the night sky. She tried to push the images of the Baron from her mind, but it did little use. He kept coming back. Loftus… She thought of how he laughed, the breadth of his smile, and the green eyes that had always born the habit of being able to read her so easily.
She blinked, trying to push the thought of him away. Augusta shifted endlessly as she stood at the door of the Baron’s house, waiting for it to open. She looked down at her dress, rearranging it with frustration. She wore a green high-waisted empire gown, one of her favorites. With a wide neckline and long sleeves, the bust was bordered with dark lace that matched the hemline. She tried not to think of why she had chosen it, as she turned her attention to her pelisse. A darker green, it was cinched at the waist with a high neckline, emphasizing the length of her figure as the hem dropped to her feet. She cursed herself for fidgeting, arguing with herself that she had not chosen the clothes for want of the Baron’s admiration. It was merely that she did not wish to appear weak before him. She imagined the dress was her armor.
With the strength of it she could go in and meet him, hold her chin high and try to forget what he had done all those years ago. She raised her eyes from the dress to the house, admiring the façade. She had visited the place many times all those years ago, but in the time that had passed, the frontage had been re-painted. The white pillars shone in the afternoon bright light and the red brick gleamed. It was a tall house, with many rooms and grand windows to match. She was so busy admiring it that the door opening took her by surprise. A butler revealed himself on the other side, the same as she had known on her last visits. The old man’s eyes widened, clearly in surprise. “Miss Creassey?” He asked, stuttering slightly. He had barely changed, though perhaps there were a few more wrinkles to his fine countenance.
“That is right. How are you, Holmes?” She asked with a smile, attempting to quieten the nerves in her stomach. “I am well, my Lady. It has been some years. You are here to see the master?” He smiled, already stepping back and hurrying her into the hallway. “Yes please,” she stepped in as her gaze was drawn to the grand hall. Just as fine as she remembered, the floor was dappled with white tiles and the great stairs in front of her spiraled up into the rafters. She smiled at seeing them. There was a time when had she thought the house would have been her home. She bit her lip to stop the smile, no good could come from happy memories of the Baron.
“Here we are, my Lady, let me take that for you,” Holmes removed the pelisse from her. “Allow me to show you into the drawing room whilst I fetch the master.” She nodded her thanks before he led her through the familiar corridor and fine rooms. As she was shown into the drawing room, her gaze alighted on a portrait above the fireplace. It was of the Baron’s late father, but there was enough in the similarity of the features to cause pain. Especially those green eyes that stared out from the canvas. “I will arrange some tea for you too, my Lady.” Holmes bowed to her. “Thank you, Holmes.” He quickly left, leaving the door open behind him.
Augusta pressed her hands to her stomach again, wishing she could stop her fears yet now realizing it was futile. Since she had ended the betrothal to the Baron, she had never courted another man again. At the age of eight and twenty, she was quite the spinster in society. Yet, it did not matter to her. She could not bring herself to court another man. Partly from fear, fear of being hurt again. Yet the other part was knowing she did not have the capacity to love someone as she had him. Loftus… She reprimanded herself for thinking of his Christian name. It was not permitted. After all, following the end of their betrothal he had quickly married and moved to the countryside with his new wife.
Augusta heard of the woman’s death a year ago. She never welcomed news of the Baron, but she had been of course unable to escape such news as that. A sound at the doorway of the drawing room had her turning around slowly, fearful of being faced with Baron Bardolf’s countenance, but when she turned, her face cracked into a smile at the surprise that greeted her. It was not the Baron after all, but a boy, no older than seven years of age at most. He had come running into the room, dressed in his waistcoat, jacket and breeches so smartly, though his cheeks were flushed as though he had been running for a good while. As he spotted her, his small body froze and the smile he had been wearing vanished. Augusta struggled for a minute, wondering who the boy could be before she found her voice. “Good afternoon,” she bobbed a little curtsy to the lad. “I am Miss Augusta Creassey, what is your name?” The boy turned to run away.