Seducing the Vengeful Marquess – Lucinda Nelson

The house was just as she remembered it. Nothing had changed since the day she’d left, five years earlier. As she walked inside, with her Aunt Esther close at her heels, she took in every detail. It felt like a distant dream. The painting of the white horse in the foyer. The Chinese ornament of a golden monkey on the cabinet, which her mother had brought back from her travels. Even the creak of the floorboards was familiar to her. She went into the drawing room and, as she looked at the sofas which had been plumped for their arrival, thought back on the day that had changed everything. *** It was three days after her sixteenth birthday when they brought her the news. She was sitting in the drawing room, with Mrs. Barrow, the head of house, beside her. In her dazed state, all she could think of was that she’d never seen Mrs. Barrow sitting before. She considered this very intently, to avoid having to face the news spilling out of a sternlooking gentleman’s mouth. He was talking, but Loraine wasn’t listening.

She was thinking about a simpler time, trying to pinpoint another time when she’d seen Mrs. Barrow sitting. She fell into a memory, of the time she’d snuck away from her mother in the hopes that Mrs. Barrow would give her something sweet to eat. Loraine was so disorientated that she felt certain that she could actually smell an apple pie being baked. Could hear the bubble of boiling apples on the stove. Could see the old woman sitting in the kitchen, her wrinkled hands rubbing at the joints in her knees. “Come in, little darling,” Mrs. Barrow had said, in a voice that hadn’t changed over the years. “I suppose you want some cinnamon?” “Miss Beauchamp,” the gentleman said.

Loraine blinked slowly and looked up at him from where she sat. She felt Mrs. Barrow pushing her blonde ringlets back over her ear. “Yes, sir?” The man frowned at her. He stood extremely upright, and he had a thick handlebar mustache and mousy brown hair which was thinning on top. “Do you understand what I’ve told you, Miss Beauchamp?” “Oh, do leave her be,” Mrs. Barrow begged. She was cupping Loraine’s head and drawing it towards her chest so that she could cradle it. Loraine allowed her to do this, but didn’t close her eyes. She felt the cool drip of Mrs.

Barrow’s tears on her scalp. “I understand,” she said to the man, nodding as best she could without abandoning Mrs. Barrow’s hold. The man’s frown deepened. “Miss Beauchamp, your parents-” “She heard you,” Mrs. Barrow interjected, sharply. “You heard him, didn’t you little miss? You don’t need to hear it again.” Loraine nodded slowly. “I heard you, sir.” The gentleman was terribly grim-faced.

“Very well,” he conceded. “A gentleman will come in the morning, to discuss Miss Beauchamp’s future.” “My future, sir?” He’d been speaking to Mrs. Barrow, but then he looked down at her and of ered her a soft, but piteous smile. “The matter of your guardianship, Miss Beauchamp.” Loraine closed her eyes. She had her hand in Mrs. Barrow’s, which was warm and the skin ever so soft. She wondered where she would go and who she would live with, now that her parents were dead. She lifted her face and stared up at Mrs.

Barrow. She didn’t need to speak for the beloved old woman to understand the fear hidden in her eyes. Mrs. Barrow touched Loraine’s cheek and smiled shakily, as her tears continued to pour down her wrinkled cheeks. “I’ll go wherever you go, little miss. I’ll make sure of it.” Loraine rested her cheek against Mrs. Barrow’s collarbone. She was appeased as much as she could be, given that it felt like two equal sized portions of her soul had been carved out of her and taken away. She thought that she shouldn’t cry.

That her mother wouldn’t have cried at her age, had she faced similar circumstances. Her mother had always had a reputation for her strength. Father called her the pillar of the family. Had. Father had called her the pillar of the family. But both of them were gone now. No one told her how it happened. Just that it had happened. Even when she mustered the courage to ask Mrs. Barrow, she just told her not to think of it.

Then she made this half-smiling, half-tearful face and said, “My, look at your hair! I’ve done an awful job of it. Your mother was so much better at it than me.” *** Loraine came out of the memory like she was waking from a deep sleep. She turned away from the drawing room and went to her father’s study. His chair was the only thing in the house that wasn’t pristine, because that was the way he liked it. She remembered him saying to her that a good chair should look as if it has been sat in. Loraine leaned against the frame of the door and breathed in the scent of the room. Old books and the musk of the mahogany desk. Another memory came to swallow her up. *** The gentleman who came the morning after her parents’ death looked very serious indeed.

He came with a huge black file. The man slumped as he walked, which made Loraine think that the file must be very heavy indeed. “There must be a relative I can speak to,” the gentleman said to Mrs. Barrow, who was standing between him and Loraine. “A cousin, perhaps? Anyone?” “There is no one on this side of the world, sir,” Mrs. Barrow answered, with a stern expression. “You can’t expect me to-” Loraine knew what he was going to say. That he couldn’t be expected to conduct such serious dealings with a servant. But before he could go on, Mrs. Barrow interjected.

“I was very close to the Beauchamps, sir. And unless you mean to wait until Miss Loraine’s aunt can come from America, I may be your last resort. And I can assure you that she may be trickier to contact than you might think.” With a hefty exhale, the gentleman shook his head. He hesitated for a moment longer, before putting the file down on her father’s desk and opening it. “This is Henry Beauchamp’s last will and testament,” he said. Loraine stood beside the desk and peered down at the file. No one paid her any heed. Mrs. Barrow stood beside her, frowning down at the will.

“And?” She pressed. “What is in store for Miss Loraine?” “I worry that the answer will not please you,” he replied, as he glanced up at Mrs. Barrow. “Do not leave me in suspense.” “The aunt you mentioned. Is there only one aunt?” Mrs. Barrow nodded. “Yes, she lives in-” As it dawned on her, she stopped talking and her lips slackened. “She lives in America,” the gentleman concluded. Mrs.

Barrow looked about ready to faint. She turned the file towards her and started reading at a frantic pace. “You say that she will be dif icult to contact?” “An impossible woman!” Mrs. Barrow exclaimed. “You have met her?” “Just the once,” she went on. “Is there no one else?” “Not that I am aware of,” he said, as he pried the file away from Mrs. Barrow’s clinging fingers. “Not that it would matter if there was. This was written in Henry Beauchamp’s own hand.” “But America…” Mrs.

Barrow said. She allowed the man to take the file from her and looked down at Loraine, who had been staring up at her for several moments. Loraine couldn’t recall her aunt, though they’d met once when she was seven or eight years old. Loraine couldn’t remember exactly when. But her aunt clearly hadn’t made a lasting impression on her, for whatever reason. And she’d often overheard her mother talking about her, though she was Loraine’s father’s sister, not her mother’s. They had so few relatives, so Loraine had been very curious about her aunt. She’d asked her parents about her from time to time, but they’d always made obvious attempts to evade her questions. The thought of going to live with her aunt, who was practically a stranger to her, was quite frightening. “You’ll still come?” Loraine said, as she stared up at Mrs.

Barrow, in a steady but hopeful voice. Mrs. Barrow hesitated and, for a second, Loraine thought that she was going to say no. She’d be all alone in America, with an aunt she barely remembered. She’d have to leave behind all her friends, her house, her memories. And now Mrs. Barrow. But seeing that Loraine’s eyes were starting to water, Mrs. Barrow cupped her cheeks and planted a kiss on her forehead. “My darling, my little miss, of course I will come.

” Loraine felt Mrs. Barrow’s warm breath in her hair. “I would never leave you.” And she never did. *** Loraine felt a hand on her shoulder. She opened her eyes, to find Mrs. Barrow standing beside her. Five years older, but having stayed by her side, just as she’d promised all those years ago. “Are you alright, little miss?” She still called her this, though she was a woman now. Loraine smiled a little and nodded.

“Very bright in here,” came a voice from behind them. It was her Aunt Esther, who she’d lived with for the past five years in Louisiana. She was squinting up at the light coming in through a window, which made Loraine think of the first time she’d ever seen her. *** It took a long time for them to establish contact with Loraine’s aunt, just as Mrs. Barrow had predicted. But when they did, they were called to America immediately. The journey to Louisiana felt colossal. But though it exhausted her, it also excited her. She’d never known that the world was so big before. As they moved across sea and land, she saw landscapes she’d tried to dream up in her imagination.

They were more stunning and alien than she’d ever been able to conjure. Her mother and father had always loved traveling, before they’d settled down to have her. As she looked out across mountains they passed on the road, she wondered what her mother would have said if she’d been there with her. It made her little heart hurt to think of them. When they arrived in Louisiana, the house was not what she’d been expecting. It was so dif erent from houses in England. It was all white, with great big pillars out the front that reminded her of Athenian temples she’d seen in pictures. “Shall we go inside?” Mrs. Barrow suggested, when Loraine stopped to look up at the house. It was late in the evening and a servant had come out to retrieve their bags.

She had a lump in her throat and her hands were shaking. She squeezed them together in front of her to make them be still, then nodded. Mrs. Barrow put her hand on her upper back and led her towards the open door. Though the outside of the house looked pristine, the inside was dark and gloomy. There was dust and furniture that looked so old and unused that she wondered if they’d break if anyone sat on it. The house felt cold and damp. She looked around, at crooked pictures in broken frames. Ornaments so caked in dust that they were colorless. A young girl came to them and took their coats.

“Where are the other staf ?” Mrs. Barrow asked, with a frown. The girl kept her head down and mumbled when she spoke. “There’s just me and Adam, ma’am.” Extremely unusual. Before Mrs. Barrow could question her any further, the girl scuttled away quickly.

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