Mary Shepherd had been reared with the strictest of upbringings to prepare her for the day when she would wed. From proper introductions when meeting others to remaining quiet unless spoken to in the presence of gentleman, Mary knew all the rules of propriety. She knew when to curtsy and how low, depending to whom she was curtsying. She knew when to keep her eyes lowered and when to look at a person directly during a conversation. Her years of training made playing cards with Nancy and Robert, two of the servants at Sweetspire Estates – or rather two people who posed as servants – that much more exciting. Never would she have thought she would live such a life, but thus had it been since she and her sisters – Constance, the oldest, and Emma, the youngest – left their home of Lankster Manor one year ago. “Perhaps one more before I leave,” Robert said with a wide grin. The man was handsome, and Mary had thought on more than one occasion they would fall in love. However, that did not come to pass for, in fact, Robert was in love with Nancy. At first, the news of the two becoming a couple did not sit well with Mary, for she had wanted the man to confess his admiration for her. Yet, as time passed, she came to realize that enjoying his friendship was all that was meant for her. The strange thing was the loss of the man had not been as hurtful as she would have thought, and she was happy for his current situation with Nancy. “It seems you enjoy losing your money,” Mary teased. “I know I speak not only for myself but for Nancy as well when I say there is enjoyment in beating you.” “I’d certainly agree,” Nancy replied with a small laugh.
“Robert is many things, but a wise gambler he is not.” Robert’s face reddened, and he pulled his long hair behind his shoulder as Nancy shuffled the cards once more. It was a late morning in April, and the weather, though still cool, had left winter behind. The three sat in the drawing room of Sweetspire Estates, a home that once belonged to Lady Louisa Dewhirst, a dear friend who gave her life for them all. A woman none of them would ever forget. Nancy dealt the cards, and Mary placed a bet of a single coin in front of her, which drew a raised eyebrow from Robert. “The Shepherd sisters are cunning,” Robert said. “I might be falling into a trap!” Nancy gasped. “Robert! Don’t insult her again or I’ll ask Stephen to make you sleep in the stable.” Mary giggled and then sighed at the way Nancy looked at Robert.
It was a look of love, something that Mary’s sister Constance had found with Stephen, and something she desired, as well. She had met a few gentlemen over the last few months since arriving at Sweetspire Estates, but none of them held her interest, and if she was honest, most were more than a little boring. None spoke of adventure or even a book they had read. Instead, conversation was focused more on with whom they were conducting business or some other form of boasting of themselves. “It appears you win again,” Robert said with a little agitation. “I think I’ll call it quits, or I’ll have no more money to live on for the next month.” Mary reached over and pulled the coins to her. “Thank you. I must admit, it pains me to take your money. I have been needing new gloves, and this should pay for them.
” This made everyone laugh. The door opened, and Mary’s heart skipped a beat as Constance entered the room. “Mary!” her older sister said. “You are not gambling again, are you? You must stop doing such things!” Robert stood, and Nancy joined him. “I’m afraid it’s my fault for asking her to play. If it helps, Mary won quite the sum.” Constance gave a small shake of her head as Nancy and Robert hurried from the room. Mary did not blame them; she wished she could leave, too. Once the door closed, Mary rose from her seat, but before she could say anything, her sister said, “You know I worry about you. It is not becoming of a lady to play cards, at least not for money.
You know this but you refuse to stop.” “Neither is living in the woods,” Mary said with a snap. “Or acting as spies at parties or telling lies about how we came to be here.” She walked over to Constance. “I do not mean to sound angry, but your fear of Emma and I somehow forgetting who we are in society will not happen.” Constance sighed. “You are right. Forgive me.” She hugged Mary. “I cannot help but continue to feel responsible for you though you are grown.
Twenty. I still cannot believe it.” Mary almost laughed; Constance was only a year older than she! “I know you worry, but you should not. Emma and I will be fine, just wait and see.” The truth of the matter was Constance had always taken care of them, at least since the death of their mother. Their stepfather, Lord Phillip Burk, had sold their hands in marriage to his friends, which was the reason the three had run away. They had gotten themselves thoroughly lost in the woods, had been set upon by a highwayman, and rescued by the Man in Black, who, in turn, had married Constance. For months, they lived in a camp in the forest, doing whatever chores needed doing – Mary despised washing clothes in the river the most – until lady Louisa Dewhirst invited the three to live with her at Sweetspire Estates. The memory of Louisa giving her life to save them still haunted Mary, when the evil man named Hawk had stabbed her with his blade. “What is wrong?” Constance asked as she guided Mary to the gold-clothed couch.
They sat and Constance gave Mary’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Your heart is hurting. Was it my words?” Mary shook her head. “No, it is not that. I was just thinking about how we came to be here, the cruel ways of Phillip driving us from our home. And then Louisa…a woman so elegant and brave.” She sighed heavily. “I must be honest; there are times when I feel guilt over her death.” “I have had that same feeling,” Constance said. “And it was Stephen who told me this: Louisa gave her life because she chose to.
She wanted to see the three of us live a beautiful life and to help raise her son.” Mary nodded as she thought of Charles – a marquess in his own right – who in the strange thoughts of children insisted that Mary and Emma were his sisters and Constance and Stephen his parents. Perhaps it was his way to cope with the loss of his mother, but Mary was more than happy to indulge him. Now, the boy was at a boarding school where he could receive the best instruction so he could one day take his position in society. None here were qualified to give him what he would need, no one besides Stephen, but the man had other obligations that kept him away often. “What you say is true,” Mary said. “I feel better now. Though I wish I had someone to confide in, like you have with Stephen or Nancy has with Robert.” “You will in time,” Constance said, offering a smile that Mary returned. “Then you will speak nonstop of your love for the man.
” She glanced at the small table. “And how you have put the ways of gambling behind you.” This made them both laugh. “I imagine I will,” Mary said. “And thank you. For everything.” She gave her sister another embrace. The door opened, and Emma, their youngest sister, entered. With her blue dress and neatly styled hair, Mary suspected she had done up her appearance to catch Luke’s eye. “Stephen requested we meet in the ballroom to discuss the upcoming months.
” Emma frowned. “Have you two been crying? Is there something wrong?” “No,” Mary said. “In fact, everything is quite fine.” The three headed to the ballroom, and Mary thought of Constance’s words concerning Louisa. The woman had wanted them to have a wonderful life, and Mary would do everything she could to make sure that wish came true. *** If one were to observe Sweetspire Estates, they would believe it was quite normal by all outward appearances. Lord Stephen Chambers, 7th Earl of Hartford, and his wife, Lady Constance Chambers, resided there to overlook the estate and to be legal guardians to the heir. Numerous servants hurried about the house to do whatever tasks they were assigned, both inside and outside. Everything ran like any other estate in the ton. However, it was who those people really were that would shock anyone if they were to learn.
The staff was made up of a mixture of people: former prostitutes, thieves, rogues, those of the Landed Gentry, and those such as Stephen, who came from the aristocracy. Stephen, with the help of Lady Louisa Dewhirst, had spent many years dedicated to helping others and giving them a new chance at life. One example was Sally, who now posed as Constance’s lady’s maid, was a former prostitute who had a heart of gold and took pride in her new duties. Vicar Luke, who stood half a man taller than most, had caught Emma’s eye, and she made no attempt to conceal that fact. Despite where any came from, the most important thing was that, be they earl or rogue, prostitute or former thief, all were treated with kindness and as equals, a fact Mary had come to adore about their lively group. At the moment, she stood next to her sisters in a large circle made up of that community in the ballroom. For the last year, she had met so many different people and loved to listen and learn their stories. Mary’s life had gone from doing embroidery to playing a spy at parties and helping those who needed a hand. It was a life full of adventure, and she could not wait to hear what new exploit Stephen had planned for them all. Stephen, in his customary black shirt and breeches, spoke quietly to Robert, and with a nod, made his way to the middle of the circle.
Mary smiled at the love she could see in Constance’s eyes as Stephen began to speak. “Friends, much has changed over the last year. Three ladies came into our lives, and I believe we are all the better for it.” Hearing the collective words of agreement made Mary’s cheeks heat. “We have gained new friends, some we could trust and, sadly, those who we could not.” He spoke of Walter, a man who had betrayed them, leading to the death of Louisa. “And we lost Louisa, a dear friend I will miss every day. But, in all that, we have helped save many people. Women who were to be sold are now freed. Men who thought to turn to thievery now have honest work.
And it will continue to be thus for the foreseeable future.” Cheers lifted at his words, and Stephen allowed them to celebrate before turning to Constance. “I’m thankful that my wife allows me to continue in my role, in a limited fashion, for without her approval, I fear what her wrath would do to me.” “Have no doubt that I would not be kind,” Constance said, making everyone laugh. “But, please, continue speaking of us, not yourself.” Mary laughed with the others as Stephen gave an exaggerated sigh. “Tomorrow, many of us will leave to return to the camp. I would ask that one of the Shepherd sisters come with me to help tutor new arrivals.” This was exactly what Mary needed. It would get her out of the estate and provide her a way to have some adventure.
It had been too long since they had returned to the camp, only returning once for Stephen and Constance’s wedding six months ago, and she missed the life there despite how different it was from living at Sweetspire Estates. “I will go,” Emma said before Mary could respond. “I love to tutor others, and I have missed our home there.” She said this while looking at Luke, much to Mary’s agitation. At least she, Mary, did not want to be there because of a man! It was very unfair! “And what say you, Constance?” Stephen asked his wife. “Yes, that will be fine. Though I do not want her gone for long. We have several parties planned in May, and she will need to be in attendance.” Emma nodded her agreement, and Constance appeared pleased. Seeing her chance slipping away, Mary said, “I will join her.
Two instructors are far better than one.” Constance shook her head. “No. I need you to remain with me. We have much to do here, and I will not make preparations for the parties on my own.” Mary gave a nod she hoped did not appear sulking. As Stephen continued, Mary’s thoughts began to wander. While Emma enjoyed her time away, Mary would be stuck in the house and at best endure a gentleman calling to bore her with mundane stories. Her frustration turned to anger – not at her sister directly but at herself for not speaking up sooner – and before she knew it, the meeting was over and the large circle dispersed into smaller groups. Walking over to one of the windows, Mary looked out into the gardens.
The leaves would soon return to the now barren branches, and the flowers would begin to bloom, but for now the area looked as dreary as she felt. “It seems I have upset you,” Constance said, coming to stand beside her. “I’m sorry, but I really could use your help here.” Mary turned to her sister and then glanced over to see Emma speaking with Luke and three others. “It seems that Emma is allowed to run off with Luke, yet I play a friendly game of cards and I have ruined the family name.” She was being cantankerous, but she just could not help herself. It was not like her younger sister to be outspoken enough to offer before her. Constance placed a hand on Mary’s arm. “It’s not like that, I promise. As for your sister, Stephen will watch over her.
I do need you here for something important.” Mary sighed. “I know, to help prepare for the upcoming parties. Forgive me. I’ll be fine.” Constance glanced toward Emma and then leaned forward and whispered, “The admiration Emma has for Luke has not gone unnoticed. When Emma returns, she may do so with a broken heart.” “I do not understand.” “Luke means to speak to her and let her know he has no romantic notions toward her. On Stephen’s request, he will inform her of that fact once they arrive at the camp.
” A momentary flash of guilt moved through Mary. She did not necessarily want her sister to be left brokenhearted. “She will endure once she comes to understand. Look at me; I had thought Robert was the one for me and that proved to be not the case.” She looked at the man and shook her head. The smile he had for Nancy did make her happy for them both despite how it had hurt her when she learned the truth. “Often a lady admires a man and believes that perhaps he is the one for her,” Constance said. “You had thought so of Robert, and Emma thinks the same of Luke. But there is no rush, for the right gentleman will come your way.” Mary smiled.
“I do hope so. And make it one who does not spend the majority of our time together boasting of himself. Lord Eldridge spoke for nearly an hour last week of how he had gone hunting.” “There will be plenty of eligible men to meet in the coming year. But I have a question concerning Nancy. What do you think of her?” Mary looked over at the raven-haired woman. “She is kind, thoughtful, and plays her roles well.” “And as a lady of the Gentry? Do you believe she might be ready to take on such a role?” “She has learned a lot over the last few months,” Mary said with a nod. “If she is needed to play that role, I believe she will do well.” “And what of she and Robert? Does that anger you in any way? Do you hold any ill will toward her?” Mary shook her head.
“No. Robert is a good man, but his heart belongs to Nancy. I have no inclination toward him in that way any longer. In fact, I appreciate his friendship as much as I do that of Nancy.” “It seems you two have grown close, you and Nancy?” Mary considered this for a moment. “I believe so. I have confided a bit in the woman, and none of what I’ve told her has returned to my ear.” Constance gave a firm nod. “Good. I believe she should take on the role of your companion for the next few months.
” “Really?” Mary asked in surprise. “A companion? Would she want to?” “Stephen and I spoke to her, and she was excited to oblige. So, do you agree with such an arrangement?” Mary nodded just as Nancy approached them. “You wish to be my companion?” Mary asked the woman. “Are you certain?” “Oh, yes,” Nancy replied with a wide smile. “It would be my honor; if you will accept, of course.” Mary responded by hugging the woman. “I would like that very much!” Then a thought occurred to her. “What is the reason for me having a companion? You will be here with me, will you not?” “Our story will be that you must have someone unmarried with whom you can spend time, but it will also serve Nancy well to learn more skills.” She glanced past them.
“Now, if you will excuse me, I must speak to Stephen.” Turning back to Nancy, Mary felt a surge of excitement. “We must buy you new dresses,” she said, which made the other woman’s face light up. “Oh, this will be so much fun! Now I can leave the house when I want rather than waiting for a time when Constance is available to accompany me. And to think, we can attend parties together, too!” “Do you think I’ll do good as a companion?” Nancy asked. “I worry my acting’ll…acting will only take me so far.” “You will not only do well,” Mary corrected, “but you will do wonderfully. I say we go tomorrow to buy your new dress.” Nancy gave a shy smile. “I’d like that, but perhaps we can wait another day? I’d like to spend time with Robert before he leaves.
” Her cheeks turned a deep crimson, and Mary felt a twinge of jealousy, not for Robert directly but because the two had a relationship in the first place. “Of course,” Mary replied. “I forgot he will be leaving, as well. Are you sure you want to remain? Would you not rather return with him?” Nancy glanced toward Robert. “My heart wants to join him, but I must learn more roles. One day, we shall be wed and find our life together, but I still have too much to learn.” Mary nodded, and the two continued to talk. Though she was not leaving with the others the following day and would remain at the estate, she was no longer angry about it. In fact, having the opportunity to teach Nancy combined with more opportunities to leave the house more often, she was looking forward to the days ahead.