The Wicked Beginning – Lauren Smith

Must you leave?” Emily Parr flopped ungracefully onto the bed in a fashion more becoming of a girl of seven rather than seventeen. Her mother, Clara, smiled at her as she pulled on a dark-red pelisse and fastened the buttons. She presented an elegant and willowy figure. Emily hoped she would someday be as beautiful as her mother. They shared the same violet eyes dark-auburn hair. “Yes, my heart. Your father and I need to have some time together. You know I don’t like it when he leaves us.” “So instead you leave me to go to New York,” Emily reminded her. “I’ll be coming out soon. What if you miss my first Season?” “I would never miss that. I have the most wonderful plans for your debut.

I promise to be there.” Her mother leaned in and embraced Emily in a fierce hug. “You will be fine. Mrs. Danvers will take care of you, and your uncle Albert is here in London if you need him.” Emily winced. Her father’s brother was not a pleasant man. He cared little for his brother’s family. Her mother straightened and started for the door. Something about seeing her mother leave sent a sharp cry of warning through her, almost feverishly, that she should say something.

“Mother! I love you!” she called out. A deep sense of dread filled Emily’s chest in that heartbeat of an instant before her mother glanced over her shoulder and replied, “I love you too, darling . ” Emily tried to leave the bed as her mother and the sunny room dissolved around her. Emily bolted upright in bed with a start. She blinked, breathing hard as a sob caught in her throat. The air was silent, cold, and stagnant around her, and the darkness that was usually a comfort was now oppressive. A light sheen of chilled sweat covered her skin. She trembled. It was a dream. Just a dream.

A dream she’d had so often of late. What she’d seen in the dream hadn’t happened a year ago when her parents left. Emily had never said goodbye or that she loved her mother and father. No, she had decided that sketching a bunch of silly flowers was more important than making sure to be home when they left for New York. Now she would never have the chance again. Emily sat up and pulled her knees up to her chest. She wrapped her arms around her legs and stared into the dim, moonlit room. It was not her bedchamber that she now slept in, but one of the spare rooms in Uncle Albert’s townhouse. She had been here almost a year, ever since her parents’ ship had sunk on its return journey from New York. Everything had changed.

She was eighteen now. Her beloved governess, Mrs. Danvers, had taken another post with a little girl in need of a good tutor, and Emily had no choice but to live with her uncle. His London townhouse had perhaps been impressive once, but it was clear that her uncle’s mismanaged investments had made a decent upkeep of the house almost impossible. They had only a butler, a cook, one groom, one maid, and one footman to tend to the large townhouse. Much of the furniture from her parents’ country home had been sold, and her beloved horse had been auctioned off so her uncle would have money to keep her fed and clothed. She’d had barely a few days to resign herself to losing everything of her old life before Uncle Albert had taken it all away from her. She’d thought she had two choices: live with Uncle Albert or travel to Yorkshire to live with her mother’s distant cousin, Mr. Garrity. He was placed in charge of Emily’s inheritance, a small but decent-sized fortune that had been put into a trust for her.

When Emily had asked Mr. Garrity whether she could live with him, he had objected quite strongly, asserting that he traveled often and could not see to the needs of a child. So her only option had been to live with Uncle Albert. A child . Emily hadn’t been a child in a long time. If anything, in the last year she’d begun to feel ancient, in soul and spirit. It was clear that Uncle Albert did not want her either. She had done her best to leave him undisturbed as often as she could, and she tried to help around the house as best she could. But he usually grumbled about her being underfoot. A bloody nuisance, he always said.

Emily lay back down in bed. Dawn was still a few hours away, but fresh worries danced sinisterly around the edges of her mind like dark wraiths. Today her uncle would meet with two new business partners, and she had been ordered to be invisible while the men paid their calls. One man, a Mr. Blankenship, had had discussions about investing with Albert before. But the second, whose identity her uncle wouldn’t disclose to her, was new. Perhaps her uncle would have some luck, and things would turn around. Uncle Albert hadn’t been pleased to learn that Mr. Garrity was Emily’s trustee, and that only small amounts of money were to be released each month for Emily’s care. It wasn’t enough.

Even when Emily had pleaded her own case, Mr. Garrity had refused. He cited her uncle’s poor investment history as a dangerous circumstance, and he did not trust her uncle to spend the money on her. Uncle Albert wasn’t so villainous as that, she thought, but he would certainly enjoy more money now that Emily was contributing to his bills. She had to agree that they needed more to live on, since she had her first ball in a month. If she didn’t have enough money to present herself well to society, she’d be trapped with Uncle Albert even longer than either of them wished—possibly forever. Emily lay awake, exhausted from her dream, and when the clock in the hall chimed eight, she dragged herself out of bed. She rang the bell cord, and the maid, an older girl named Mary, eventually came to help her change and put her hair up. The blue day gown Emily wore was at least a year old, but it was made of a good strong muslin and still looked new. Some of her other gowns were not faring so well, as they were a few seasons old.

Having not yet debuted in society, she hadn’t needed new gowns each year. But that was about to change. She was eighteen now and would be stepping out into London society to present herself on the marriage mart. She couldn’t wear worn gowns to lavish balls. The delicate silks and satins she had were therefore well cared for and kept untouched unless she absolutely needed to wear them. As she had nowhere to go and needed to remain out of the way, the blue day gown seemed a sensible choice. “Do you know when my uncle expects Mr. Blankenship?” Emily asked Mary. The woman shook her head. “He made no mention to the staff, miss.

” “Right, well, I’d better go down and see if the cook needs help.” Emily left the maid to see to her duties. The amount of cleaning for such a large house truly required another three maids, but they couldn’t afford such luxury. Emily touched the banister, and a thin layer of dust coated her fingertips. She softly cursed, something that would have made her mother frown and her father chuckle. So much for assisting the cook. She retrieved a white cloth and dipped it into some water, then carefully wiped the entire length of the wood until it gleamed. She let out a relieved sigh. At least all the small chores kept her busy. But she did miss the days when she could curl up in the library at her parents’ townhouse and read until dinner.

Emily put the cloth away and started for the kitchen, but her uncle’s voice stopped her. “Emily?” “Yes, Uncle Albert?” Emily approached her uncle’s study with trepidation. The door was ajar. She nudged it farther open and stepped inside. Albert was a thin man with dark eyes, so unlike her father’s vivid blue eyes. He frowned over his account books, but he raised his head when he heard her approach. “Ah, there you are. Remember to make yourself scarce today. It is imperative that these meetings go well.” “Yes, Uncle Albert.

” “Oh, and about the ball in three weeks—I shall have to escort you myself. We cannot afford a chaperone. I hope that does not upset you?” Albert’s gaze was cool, as though he expected her to throw a tantrum. “That’s fine, Uncle Albert. Thank you. I should be glad of your company.” She meant it. She and Albert may not have chosen to live together, but the tragic consequences of her parents’ death now bound them, and only Albert stood between her and the world. Emily looked down at the worn carpet of her uncle’s office, feeling wretched and hating that feeling more than anything. She loved life and wasn’t afraid of the world.

Her parents had raised her in high spirits, and she naturally longed for a life of adventure. With a head for mathematics, a tongue for languages, and actual cleverness, Emily had hoped her life would be so much more fulfilling. But now it all seemed so dark, so hopeless. Her uncle’s clear disdain for her only deepened the melancholia that had taken over her spirits in the last year. Her mother and father had given her the gift of unconditional love, and Emily was only now beginning to realize how rare such a thing was. There was no one in the world now who loved her so completely. Now she felt utterly alone. “Well, so long as you aren’t bothered by my attending, we can stay at the ball for a few hours that evening. That should give you a chance to snatch up a few dozen hearts.” Albert’s eyes softened slightly, but then they turned hard again.

“Just make sure you find a man whose pockets are well lined. I won’t have much of a dowry for you, and that bloody fool Garrity won’t likely provide you with anything until you’ve got a man properly leg shackled, assuming the tight-fisted man will even approve of your choice.” “Yes, Uncle,” Emily replied, but the words left a bitter taste upon her lips. “Now, go and make yourself invisible.” He waved his hand, dismissing her. Emily headed down to the kitchen to see what she could do to assist her uncle’s cook. After two hours, she believed it was safe enough to venture upstairs again. But the moment she stepped into the hall, she froze at the sight of her uncle and a man speaking to him not ten feet away. “Are you sure you won’t reconsider?” Her uncle was almost pleading with the man. “At least give yourself a few days to decide.

” The man’s voice was cold. “Silver mines are a nasty venture. I don’t believe the markets will hold them up.” Emily knew she needed to leave, but the door to the servants’ stairs had creaked loudly, drawing the attention of both men. Her uncle paled as the other man, whose back had been to her, turned to face her. He was tall, middle-aged, and his once relatively attractive face was marred by an underlying cruelty that seemed to glow out of his beetle-black eyes. “Who is this, Albert?” the visitor asked. He stared at her in surprised fascination. “My niece . My brother’s child.

He and his wife passed away a year ago. I’m sorry she intruded upon our discussion.” Albert shot Emily a glare, jerking his head to the side to signal her to leave. “No, she’s not intruding at all. Come here, child. I wish to look at you.” He waved to a spot on the floor only a few feet away from him, summoning her like some sort of dog. Emily obeyed, to avoid seeming rude and causing further damage to her uncle’s meeting. The man caught her chin and raised it up so their eyes met. “You are a pretty thing,” he murmured to himself.

Then he turned to Albert. “She favors her mother, I assume?” “Yes, very much. Clara was a veritable beauty.” Emily wanted to look away from the man, but it was hard to avoid his gaze without jerking her chin free of his hand. “Clara . I knew her once. Such an extraordinary likeness.” The man spoke to her uncle as though Emily were a portrait, or a sculpture. A possession. Albert fidgeted behind him.

“Er . Yes, well, I’m in the process of trying to marry her off.” The man’s possessive gaze held her frozen as he swept his eyes over her. “Are you, now?” His fingertips lingered at her throat. “Parr, I changed my mind. I shall invest with you after all. Double the number we originally discussed.” The man smiled, and Emily’s instincts screamed at her to run, but her training as a lady held her in place. The man dropped his hand and turned away from her. Emily took the chance to run then.

She scampered up the stairs like a frantic child and rushed to the small library, closing the door behind her. The shelves of books inside whispered comforting words of distraction to her. She wasn’t a fool. That man had changed his mind about investing with her uncle only after he’d seen her. She knew what that meant. She needed to find a husband, and soon. ALBERT ESCORTED Mr. Blankenship to the door, an uneasy mixture of pleasure and dread warring within him. Blankenship was wealthy and had many influential contacts at his disposal. An investment from him was a huge boon, one that would help Albert stay afloat another year.

But Albert wasn’t an idiot. He had seen the way the man had stared at Emily. He desired her, and Parr had heard whispers of Blankenship’s cruelty toward women. Once, years ago, Emily’s mother had caught his eye. Albert pretended to know none of this, but his brother, Robert, had told him of another suitor vying for Clara’s hand. He said the name Blankenship only once, but Albert, while not as clever with investments as he wished he could be, had a brilliant memory. It was one of the reasons why he’d wanted Emily hidden away. The two men he had invited here to speak about business opportunities were both frightening in their own respects. Blankenship had a terrifying reputation and a darkness about him, while the Duke of Essex, a hot-tempered young man, was said to duel upon any slight disagreement. The last thing Albert wanted was to have either of those men interested in Emily.

He did care about the girl, but the unexpected financial burden of caring for her was entirely unwelcome. The frustration from his inability to deal with that burden had made him unkind to her at times, something he was both ashamed of and unwilling to acknowledge. He had sought in vain for support from Clara’s distant cousin, Mr. Garrity, but the man sent only a meager amount of her trust to Albert each month, not even enough for the child, let alone him. Only a marriage would see the child off his hands. He had no designs or illusions that he could marry her to someone who would share a bit of her inheritance with him. No man would willingly give up money he claimed as a husband, but at least Albert would no longer be responsible for her. Albert peered through the curtained window as he watched Blankenship climb into his coach. Once he was safely away, Albert let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Then he returned to his office to prepare for his meeting with the Duke of Essex later that afternoon.

A SLEEK SLOOP sailed into London Harbor at midday. The Pool of London was teeming with vessels carrying goods from the West Indies, like sugar and rum, their aromas mingling with the dirty air hovering above the Thames. Other boats carried tea and exotic spices from the East, wine from the Mediterranean, and even furs, timber, and hemp from Russia and the Baltic


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