The Widow of Falbrooke Court – Kasey Stockton

There was nothing in the world Amelia Fawn hated more than the unexpected. Life was wholly more pleasant when things went according to plan, obediently falling into their natural way and performing as they should, much like a well-oiled clock. But getting stuck on a muddy road in the center of a small creek, the wheels of her gig spinning sloppily in the dirty water, was not according to plan. No, it was entirely unexpected. Amelia clicked her tongue, slapping the reins against her horse’s rump to try and propel the creature again. A whinny met her ears, and the horse gave another valiant effort, the gig rocking forward as the wheels spun, splashing muddy water up and splattering Amelia’s back with gooey, dirty droplets. Ugh. Dropping her wrists onto her lap, she let the reins fall slack. Her options were quite plain. She could sit on the bench seat until rain came, raising the creek water enough to lift her carriage away and thus dislodging it from the sludge, or she could climb down and do her best to lead her stallion, Howard, out of the mud herself. Her boots were bound to be ruined, but surely the one benefit to wearing nothing but black was that she could muddy her hem as much as she wished, and no one would be the wiser. Or so she assumed. Amelia was not in the habit of dirtying her person in any way. Clutching the thin, leather reins firmly in one hand, Amelia shifted on the seat, gathering her skirts in preparation to jump down. She paused, cocking her ear toward the steady clopping of a horse’s hooves.

Someone was coming. Oh, no. Not just someone. The absolute last man she wished to see in all of England rode her way with a pleasant smile on his obnoxiously amiable face. “Good day, Mrs. Fawn,” Charles Fremont called, lifting his hat from a mop of chestnut hair in greeting. “Might I be of any assistance?” She trained her face into a placid smile. Perhaps if she prayed fervently for a downpour of rain, the heavens would grant her wish and sweep her away from this awful man. Well, awful might be something of an exaggeration. But it truly was horrid how Charles had hung on so when she’d made it plain time and again that her interests could not, would not ever, lean his way.

Would that he could simply understand that he did not stand a chance in gaining her favor. She’d known Charles her entire life, and his eagerness to please her had never once made her the slightest bit inclined to love him. It had done the opposite, in fact, making her desire as much space between them as possible. “I think this will require the work of more than one man,” she said, hoping to stave further offers of assistance, to inhibit his eagerness before it could show. “I was only just considering the merits of walking home to find help.” “Perhaps I might save you a trip. I am heading to Falbrooke now to speak to your brother.” Amelia dipped her chin. This was better than she could have anticipated. She had fully expected Charles to swing from his horse and valiantly attempt to save her.

But she wanted to avoid that. More than finding his restless need to serve her quite stifling, she could not allow herself to owe him anything. He turned his attention to the wheels of her gig, his light brown eyebrows drawing together in concentration. “You are certain your horse will not move from that position? It does not look very deep.” She stifled an irritated sigh. This is what she had been afraid of—Charles playing the hero. She considered demonstrating Howard’s inability to pull her from the sludge, but the resulting spray of muddy water would not be worth it. Instead, she nodded. The grooves deepened on his brow, and he slid from his horse, tossing the reins over a nearby branch and crossing to Howard’s head. “Come, boy.

Will you move for me?” he asked, his voice surprisingly soft. Howard threw his head back and whinnied, and Amelia tightened her hold on the reins. “I’m not sure he likes—” “If you will urge him forward, I will push from the back,” Charles said, focused. “We might be able to get you from the rut ourselves.” Amelia turned on the seat, following Charles with her eyes as he shrugged out of his navy coat and draped it over his saddle, setting his hat on top. “But the water is bound to splash you. And as I said before, I really think this is the work of more than one man.” To say nothing of the fact that Charles, while a grown man, was not in the habit of performing manual labor. Throughout their childhood, Charles had preferred to follow her around than play with the boys. Surely his indolent disposition had not since changed.

He could not possibly possess the strength required to remove her wheels from the mud. She only thought to save him from humiliation and a muddied person. “Dirty water does not frighten me, Amel—” He cleared his throat, rolling up his shirtsleeves to the elbow. “Mrs. Fawn.” His cheeks turned rosy, his gaze lowering as he stepped around to the back of the carriage, his boots splashing in the shallow creek bed. “On my count, urge the horse forward.” She nodded, settling forward in her seat again. Well, she’d tried to stop him. If he wanted a mud spray over his clothing, that was his choice.

“One, two, three!” Amelia slapped the reins against Howard’s rump as she rocked back, feeling the pressure of Charles’s shoulder against the back of the gig as his grunt rent the air. “Almost,” he called, his voice strained, and she leaned forward to help. The gig jostled as the wheels broke free from their mucky prison and lurched forth. Amelia pulled on the reins, bringing it to a stop once she was out of the muddy creek, her heart hammering in her chest. Turning to thank Charles, she found him walking back to his horse, wiping his hands together to remove the dirt. He was splattered with mud and his boots were filthy, but he shrugged back into his coat and remounted his horse. And now he was certain to offer his escort, to ensure that she made it to her destination safely. His attentiveness could be stifling. “Thank you, Mr. Fremont.

” Charles glanced up, his blue eyes bright and cheeks flushed. He smiled briefly, securing his hat back on his head where mud flecks littered his hair, and nodded to her. “Of course, Mrs. Fawn.” Turning his horse in the direction of the home where she resided with her brother, Falbrooke Court, he took off, bouncing slightly in his saddle as his horse trotted away. That was all? He did not ask if she was well, or if she required anything further? Amelia stared after the man, waiting for him to glance back at her over his shoulder. He had the discomfiting habit of doing so whenever they managed to be in the same place, and this morning would be no different. She was certain. But the farther he rode away down the curved dirt road, the less certain she became. Surely he could not overcome more than two decades’ worth of infatuation so quickly.

Could he? Howard complained, tugging his head and forcing Amelia to tighten her grip on the reins, but her gaze remained fixed on the dark hat atop Charles’s head. He moved down the lane at an unhurried pace, rounding the bend and disappearing out of sight without so much as a turn of his neck. He had not looked back at her. Dropping her hands onto her lap, she frowned. It was not as though she wished for the man to remain so captivated by her, not when she was unwilling to give him the attention he sought. No, indeed, she had been glad for him when he’d returned to Devon last summer and brought along a young woman whom everyone had believed he might wed. But that relationship had not developed; the woman had left at the end of the house party, and Charles had remained alone. Amelia would be lying if she said she was relieved by that course of events. She wanted Charles to find happiness, to overcome his infatuation with her. Any person who grew up alongside the two of them understood this to be the case, for Amelia had not hesitated to deny Charles time and again.

She’d made a habit of refusing him dances and escorts, hoping that eventually, he would understand that a relationship between the two of them simply wasn’t meant to be. But just now, he had assisted her then left without so much as a backward glance. In almost three decades of their acquaintance, that had never happened. Not once. Clicking her tongue, she urged Howard forward down the lane, shaking the odd line of thought from her mind. If Charles had come to a place where he was no longer engrossed with her, then that would be good for all parties involved, and she must praise his progress. Even if it was something of a hit to her own self-esteem. Not that it mattered. Amelia Fawn had married three times. It was a truth generally accepted between those who knew her intimately, as well as the majority of the local parishioners, that Amelia would never, ever marry again.

Charles Fremont’s shoulders were tense. Clenching his muscles as he’d ridden away from Amelia coupled with the strain of pushing her gig from the mud had caused him acute soreness. He shook them out, doing his best to release the tension from his arms. It had taken every bit of control he possessed not to glance back at Amelia as he’d ridden away from her, but it had been necessary to refrain. He’d been in love with the woman since they were children, and he knew there was nothing in the world that could entice her to wed him, so he must move on. What choice did he have? He urged his horse forward, rounding another bend and sliding between the trees on the lane that led to Falbrooke Court. The tall, yellow sandstone building came into view as he clopped down the gravel drive. He did his best not to think of the old man who had owned this house before marrying Amelia and leaving it to her. He made an effort not to think of any of her husbands when he could help it, but he was not always in complete control of where his thoughts led. Though he wished that wasn’t the case.

His long unrequited feelings would be much easier to manage if he did possess control of his thoughts. He came to a stop before the tall front doors and slid from the saddle. Amelia’s pale blue eyes and perfectly serious, heart-shaped face flashed in his mind, her gratitude evident as she thanked him for helping her from the rut in the creek bed. Sure, she had been pleased to be freed from the creek, but she had felt nothing more. Why did he still need so many reminders of that fact? “What has put that scowl on your face?” Andrew Mason asked, coming down the front steps, a crooked smile on his lips. Charles shook off his thoughts, handing his reins to one of Andrew’s servants. Surely his friend did not wish to know that Charles had been thinking of the man’s lovely sister. He was here to speak about something different—something far more important than Charles’s pathetic, unreturned feelings. “I’ve brought you a grave dilemma, and I need your discretion and your help in determining what I ought to do.” Andrew’s smile slipped, his face growing serious.

“Please, do come in.” “I’m afraid I’m something of a mess,” Charles said, indicating his boots. Andrew glanced down. “It looks dried to me. Kick the steps if you’re worried, but I would prefer to speak inside. This heat is stifling.” Charles nodded, following his friend up the stairs and stomping away the majority of the loose mud. They stepped into the vast house, crossing the pristine, white marble floor to a door at the end of the corridor. Charles avoided looking over his shoulder to see if he’d trailed flakes of dirt. Perhaps if he didn’t look he would not stress himself over marring Amelia’s clean floor.

“Is this a health concern?” Andrew asked, holding the door open to his study as Charles passed through. “Yes.” “Please be seated.” It did not take much for Andrew to slip into his familiar role as Graton’s trained and trusted physician. “You know, of course, that Mr. Halpert succumbed to the wounds he sustained while serving under my uncle in the navy.” Andrew nodded. He closed his door and stepped around the desk to take his seat. “I was sorry to hear it, and I wish there was more I could have done, but he was not healthy when he came to Graton.” “I know this, Andrew.

His widow understands as well. She bears no ill will toward you.” “Mrs. Halpert?” Andrew leaned back in his seat, his eyebrows drawing together. “She was a quiet thing, but very polite.” Charles cleared his throat. There was no way he could explain this without growing uncomfortable. But Andrew was a doctor, and while it was awkward for Charles, his friend was unlikely to bat an eye. “Mrs. Halpert is with child.

” “Good heavens. And her husband died six months ago?” “Yes, just about. So you can imagine that she is nearing her time. It is certainly a blessing but also a concern. My housekeeper discovered that Mrs. Halpert has struggled with losing her babies in the past, and the very idea of losing this child has caused her an undue amount of stress.” “I can well imagine,” Andrew said, rubbing his jaw. “And I can come see her right away, Charles. You know you need only have sent a note. But…why have I heard nothing of this before now? I have not seen the woman since attending to her husband.

Not even at church.” “Yes, well, there is more.” He tried to hold his friend’s gaze, to infuse within it the fact that Charles had needed to come to Falbrooke for this errand, that he did not only do so as an excuse to see Amelia. He’d told Andrew recently that he was no longer in love with his sister, but he could see how that was difficult to believe and he didn’t want his friend thinking that this favor was naught but a ploy. “I need your advice. Mrs. Halpert is very ill. She has been for the majority of her pregnancy. And while one of her neighbors has been assisting her the last few months, that neighbor can no longer do so thanks to the demands of her children.” He paused and Andrew nodded, intent.

“That is understandable.” Charles lifted his shoulders in the barest of shrugs. “I want to help Mrs. Halpert in the best way I am able. With her neighbor unable to assist any longer, Mrs. Halpert is completely alone. Her husband is gone, and the only remaining piece of him she has is a chance of this child making it into the world—a feat when history has proven that a difficult thing for her to accomplish. I do not know anything about the nature of these things, but I would like your guidance so I can help this woman.” “That is admirable, Charles. Do you…” Andrew sat up in his chair, straightening his sleeve.

“Do you feel for this woman in a way—” “Gads, man. Of course not.” Charles leaned back, slightly repulsed. Mrs. Halpert was a lovely woman, but Charles had no room in his heart for anyone at present. Not until he figured out how to remove Amelia from it. “I’m helping the displaced sailors in lieu of my uncle now that he’s returned to sea, and I got to know her husband well in the process of farming my land together. My charity goes no farther than that. I am simply a man with a willingness to help but no clear idea how I might do so. I was hoping you could guide me.

” Andrew gave one concise nod. “I will do whatever I can to help. And I think I know just the thing.”

.

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