The Ace of Hearts – Ashtyn Newbold

Escape. The word pattered softly through Alice Rosemeyer’s mind like the rain that would soon fall against her window. The dark clouds had been stirring all morning, threatening to ring out their moisture all over Berkshire like a dirty rag. Alice dropped another folded dress into her valise, a pair of slippers, then a book. The floorboards dug into her knees, and her hairline was wet with perspiration. She shuffled across the ground toward her desk, gathering up her writing supplies before pressing them into the empty spaces inside her valise. Stretching her aching back, she sat on her heels and turned to face her sister. “Have you packed your things already?” Even knowing they were alone, Alice was still inclined to whisper. Louisa nodded, threading her arms around one of the posts on Alice’s bed. “I haven’t many things to pack.” She gave a weak smile. “Nor I.” Alice stood with a groan, brushing the grey dust off her muslin skirts. “I suppose we should count ourselves fortunate in that regard.” Louisa’s dark curls hung limp around her face, as if she had forgotten to put them in their rags the night before.

There had been too much excitement, too much hope to have remembered such a trivial thing. Louisa wrung her hands together, a nervous smile flitting across her lips. “Do you think the Northcotts will find our wardrobes lacking?” Alice shook her head, turning toward the window. “Bridget is the only Northcott I’m acquainted with, and while she is wealthy and elegant, she isn’t one to frown upon those less fortunate. I have no doubt her family will be the same.” Alice took a calming breath. Her hands shook against the windowsill. She had convinced herself repeatedly over the last fortnight of the necessity of her plan, noting the risks and deciding if the potential successes outnumbered them. Remaining here with Stepfather and Mr. Crossley—the man her stepfather planned to force her to marry—was simply not an option.

Any risk was worth escaping that. Even her stepbrother had proven himself unable to help solve her plight. The only choice that remained was to run. And if she was going to run anywhere, it might as well be the grandest estate in Surrey. Larkhall. The word flitted across her mind, tentative and slow, floating with outstretched wings. Outside the window, birds perched high in the trees, and she opened her window to hear their song. The notes were more melancholy than usual, as if they sensed the coming rainstorm. Flowers had begun to bloom among the bushes below her window. Alice breathed in the fragrant scent, closing her eyes.

She had tried everything to placate the turmoil of her heart, the dread and hope that combated inside. But nothing had worked. Not the birdsong and flowers, not even the coming of spring. Alice had tried so hard to change her fate. She had bargained with her stepbrother, and she had lost. Now, the only way to escape her marriage to Mr. Crossley would be to marry someone else. Bridget had told her there would be several eligible gentlemen staying at Larkhall that summer. Surely any of them would be better than the man Stepfather intended for her. Bridget’s invitation had given Alice what she never thought she would have.

Another chance. She would be a fool not to take it, even if it meant she had to sneak out under her stepfather’s nose. “What is the matter?” Louisa asked in a careful voice. Alice hushed her worries before turning around. Louisa needed to see her confidence, feigned as it was. Louisa would have to seek a husband among the residents of Larkhall too, and the task could only have been even more daunting for a girl of seventeen. “Nothing is amiss.” Alice conjured up a smile. “I was simply admiring the view.” Louisa raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“I didn’t think you would be sentimental about leaving this place.” Alice laughed under her breath. “I assure you, I am not.” This place had never been called home, at least not by Alice and Louisa. Not since their mother remarried, and especially not since she died. No, Alice would not miss it one bit. The happy memories she had of Mother could be taken with her to Larkhall. And with luck, she could leave all the bad memories of Stepfather and Mr. Crossley behind forever. Well, only if she managed to make a match.

Or if Stepfather didn’t discover their location before she could. Her worries plunged back into her chest with surprising force. “Are you loath to leave Mr. Crossley behind?” Louisa’s brown eyes held a teasing glint. Alice recoiled at the words. “Not in the slightest.” She paused, attempting a joke to increase the smile on her sister’s face. “But, I must say I will miss his flattery.” “How could you not?” Louisa said amid a laugh. “Didn’t he last describe your hair to be ‘as dark as an inky river from which he might soak his pen to write the depth of his admiration for you?’” Alice groaned, the ridiculousness causing a laugh to bubble from her chest.

“Indeed, he did. A comment which I was striving to forget.” She eyed her sister. “And I resent you for reminding me of it.” Louisa crossed her ankles where they dangled off the bed, her features transforming in inquisition. “Do you think the men at Larkhall will be much better than Mr. Crossley?” “Surely there cannot be many single gentlemen twice my age who smell of aged cheese.” Louisa covered her mouth with a giggle. Alice’s nose crinkled as another shudder rolled across her shoulders. Widowed and loud, with more gray hair than brown, Mr.

Crossley was always in his cups and stumbling about, drunk as a wheelbarrow. She had tried her best to avoid him and his leering eye at every event at which they both were in attendance, but he always seemed to find her. She recalled their last interaction at a ball, when his gloved finger had traced over her elbow. He had stood with a slight hunch, his eyes never quite meeting hers when he spoke to her. They were always focused on her nose, or her mouth, or often roaming her figure in a manner that was most unsettling. She could clearly envision the wisps of hair on his head that followed the motion of his bow as he showered her with rehearsed compliments. She stopped her thoughts before they could dwell on the other disagreeable man from the ball. The one who had ruined her first chance at escaping her stepfather’s reign. A bitter taste filled her mouth. There were disagreeable men aplenty in Berkshire.

She could only hope the men at Larkhall were different. “Men are much like women,” Alice continued dryly. “There are some good, and some bad. We can only hope the good ones exceed the bad and try to be a good one ourselves. Though I believe it is true the good ones are not so very common—not like catching a raindrop in your palm during a storm, or…catching you sneaking dough from the kitchen.” Alice wiggled her eyebrows, making Louisa laugh. “I expect finding a good man is more like… finding a lovely shell on a beach. They are there but are sometimes buried deep in the sand.” Alice noticed Louisa’s pensive gaze, and reached out to take her hand. Living in the shadow of their stepfather had not enforced the idea that such men existed.

Alice felt she was assailed by one disagreeable man after another, all with intent to hold their power over her in some way or another, or to disregard the promises they had made. She wanted to believe there were good men about, but her stepfather and sometimes even her stepbrother had only exacerbated the wariness and distrust formed in her youth. Even her late father had been inattentive and cold. She supposed that was where the dread came from, festering in her heart. How could she hope to find a good man for both Louisa and herself in one summer? Her mother had been so unhappy in both her marriages. How could Alice hope for something better? How could she promise Louisa something better? “I hope we both find good men to marry,” Louisa said in a quiet voice. “If not, at least our time at Larkhall will have been one final adventure before you are shackled to Mr. Crossley forever.” Her lips twitched, as if attempting a sympathetic smile, but her frown persisted. “As you said, these seem to be our only options.

How many courses are there really for a single woman with no money?” Her usual optimism faded. For Alice and Louisa, there were only two, both of which Stepfather had threatened incessantly: A workhouse in Bath, or a life below stairs as a servant to some household. Because if Alice did not marry Mr. Crossley, Stepfather’s creditor, then his debts would not be pardoned. Stepfather faced prison if Alice did not follow through with his schemes. And if Stepfather were to fall so low, he wouldn’t hesitate to bring his stepdaughters with him. Alice shook herself of her sobering thoughts. It would not do to dwell on fear. She had before her a remarkable opportunity. All the arrangements had been made with Bridget.

A coach from Larkhall had been sent to a covert location in town. Fortunately, Stepfather had departed for London that morning to check on the investments he had neglected, thus neglecting his two stepdaughters for long enough to allow their escape. However, sneaking past Isaac would have its difficulties. She strained her ears for any sound of her stepbrother in the small house. Most days he slept past ten, but the sound of a creak outside the door made her heart leap to her throat. Louisa’s eyes widened, and she jumped from the bed, helping Alice slide her valise under it. With her breath held, Alice could hear nothing but the pounding of her heart. Then a creak. And another. Footfalls—she was certain now—coming toward the door.

She threw a frantic glance to the watch on her desk. If Isaac delayed them for more than a few minutes, they would miss the coach. Three raps came from the opposite side of the door. Alice swallowed past her dry throat, exchanging a glance with Louisa. “Come in.” The door opened and Isaac stepped inside. Surprisingly, he was already fully dressed. What had compelled him to arise so early? He had likely been up until the wee hours gambling or drinking, especially with the disheartening news he had told Alice the day before. He leaned against the wall, his pale hair swirled atop his head, standing several inches high. His cravat was knotted three times over, climbing up his neck like white, billowy ivy.

When he smiled, the fabric bunched under his chin. “Good morning, my dear sisters.” “Good morning,” Alice said, hiding her shock at his appearance as best she could. “You seem to be in good spirits.” She studied his smile again, her own mouth falling into a frown. “Are you not still…heartbroken over Miss Herring?” He pressed a hand to his chest, his brow lowering. “I have chosen to forget her as she will be forced to forget me. Her brother would have never allowed the match, and you and I were both fools to have thought he would. I must say again how much it pains me that I cannot help you avoid your marriage to Mr. Crossley.

” His voice became quiet at the end, heavy with regret. Fools, indeed. Alice’s teeth gritted as she thought of Diana Herring’s odious brother. With Alice’s help, Isaac had managed to woo Diana. It had not been difficult, considering Diana’s own fierce desire to escape the marriage her brother had arranged for her. With Diana’s dowry, Isaac had promised he would pay off Stepfather’s debts and relieve Alice of her obligation to marry Mr. Crossley. Alice and Diana would both be free of their forced marriages. Her skin prickled with distaste. Mr.

Herring had destroyed the happiness of Diana as well as Isaac by refusing the match. In turn, stealing away Alice’s best chance at freedom. He had ruined her plan. She glanced at Louisa, who watched the interaction with a furrowed brow. Alice had kept her in the dark about her plan with Isaac, as well as her extensive meddling. “It is not your fault,” Alice said with a sigh, turning toward Isaac. “Mr. Herring is the only one to blame.” Her stepbrother shuffled slightly on his feet, clasping his hands together. “Indeed.

” Her foot began bouncing with impatience. If they lingered in the house much longer they would never make it to town on time. But how would she sneak past Isaac now? He still leaned against the wall as if he never meant to leave. While she recognized a measure of goodness in her stepbrother, she still did not trust him enough to tell him of her intentions to leave. He lived to please his father, always seeking his good opinion, yet hardly ever receiving it. She could see how it wore on him. Isaac had even joined his father in his gambling habits, if only to form a bond between them. He longed for his father’s attention and love, and informing him with a secret would be too tempting for Isaac to resist. Alice didn’t dare breathe a word of their escape to anyone. No, especially not him.

She and Louisa had taken great care to avoid speaking of it around any servants as well. As an extra precaution, she had written a note, one she had left in Stepfather’s study that morning. Alice had considered the possibility that Stepfather would attempt to discover her location and call her home, so she had served him with a threat of her own. In the note, she requested that he not attempt to find her or inform anyone of her departure. She assured him that she would return at the end of the summer. She had explained just how much her reputation would suffer if it was discovered that she had taken a journey unchaperoned, to an unknown place, missing for months. Her reputation might even suffer enough to dissuade Mr. Crossley from connecting himself with her. If Stepfather stayed true to his character, he would be too desperate to question her. He would keep her departure with Louisa a secret.

Even if he searched for her on his own, he was much less likely to find her if he did not enlist the neighborhood and the constable for assistance. It would give her more time. Time. Drat it all, they were going to be late. “Forgive me, Isaac, but you must excuse Louisa and me.” She tucked her hands behind her back. “We are—er—in need of privacy as we attend to a change of wardrobe.” It was the best excuse she could muster. He gave a resolute nod. “I will be in the study should you need anything.

” Alice’s confusion continued to grow as she studied his smile. He did seem quite merry for a man who had just lost the chance to marry the woman he loved. Perhaps he had been drinking after all. He straightened his jacket, turning quickly toward the door. A small slip of paper fell out of his jacket as he turned, but by the time she noticed, he was gone. She slumped in relief as she listened to his retreating footfalls. She walked quietly toward the paper on the floor, picking it up and examining the hasty writing. 92 Bedford Square She didn’t have time to wonder what the address was for. It was likely the home of one of Isaac’s friends in London, but returning the paper to him would ruin her chance of escaping unnoticed. She left it on the floor where it had fallen before reaching for her valise under the bed.

There was no time to waste thinking about Isaac’s strange behavior. The walk to town was not a short one. Soon the carriage would arrive. And so would the rain.

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