Through the Eyes of a Blind Duchess – Patricia Haverton

As the flames licked at her heels, Aurelia had only one thought on her mind. Not again… Her chest heaved as she felt the heat creeping in closer and closer. It tickled her neck and the smoke was all that she could taste. Curling up against the pianoforte, she wondered how fast the fire was growing. Though she turned in circles praying for an escape, she couldn’t find one. There never seemed to be an escape; not after the first fire. She sucked in a deep breath. We don’t have long, she thought to herself, which meant they had to get out of there quickly before they were trapped. Surely there was a path to safety. I have to do something! It was up to her to save them. This was her childhood home, the world she had been raised in. My family’s estate. Blind or seeing, she could navigate the property easily. But there were flames now and she didn’t know how to get anywhere without her sight. “Aurelia?” Timmy squeaked as his hands clutched at her skirt.

Immediately she reached out for the child. For a moment, she feared she had lost him. Her hands covered his as she bent down to surround him with her arms. Never before had she felt so protective of another soul, for she would rather let the world crumble than let him be injured. She couldn’t let anything happen to him. Except she felt paralyzed. From her childhood, she recalled the layout of her home with the grand staircase. It can’t be far away. They were in the second-floor music room connected to the hall closest to the stairs. And there was a window.

No, two windows in the music room. But where? Spinning them around in a circle, Aurelia tried desperately to remember. Her skirts tugged on her shoes and nearly made her tumble over. “I’m scared,” Timmy cried pitifully in her ears, just loud enough for her to hear over the raging fire. Tears wet her cheeks only to grow warm. The crackling sound grew closer. She flinched. Sweat began to collect on her face, mixing with her tears as it stuck her hair to her forehead and cheeks. She squeezed her eyes shut as she tightened her grip around the boy beside her. The last time she had been caught in a fire such as this, she had been the child who needed help.

Now I have to help him. No matter how scared she was now, she could not just stand there. I have to do something. Aurelia swallowed her fear as she attempted to muster her courage. Her heartbeat thudded loudly against her ribs as she tried to think about how to get them out of the danger they were in. After coming so far in the last couple of months, she couldn’t give up now. “It’s all right, my darling. We’re going to be safe,” she managed to say at last. Though her tongue felt thick and heavy, she focused on drawing the words out one by one. If she didn’t show her fear, perhaps he wouldn’t feel so afraid.

She swallowed hard. “We’ll find our way out of here.” The boy was shaking now. “How?” Her plan was still forming in her mind as she told him. “It’s a game, Timmy. Just another game. You’re going to be my eyes. You can do that, can’t you? You’ll keep us both away from the flames and get us to safety. I know we just left the pianoforte. There are two windows in the room.

But where is the door, Timmy? The door?” She kept her hands on his shoulders as she felt him raise one arm. Her hand slid down to follow the direction where he was pointing. “That way. But the chair…” There was a chair set near the door. Aurelia licked her chapped lips. “It’s not in the way, is it?” “It’s burning,” he squeaked. “Then we’ll go around it,” she assured him. “We’ll both be brave, just like your father, won’t we? We want the Duke to be proud of us. We must be brave and go find him. He must be worried about us.

It’s only a game, Timmy. You’ll lead us out of here, and then, then we shall be safe in his arms.” She wished she could do more. At that moment, all she wanted was to scoop him up in her arms and run out of the house with him to safety. Never had her lack of sight been so inconvenient and frightening. Straightening up, Aurelia fixed her dress. She was on the last of her nerves, barely holding it together. But I have to. For Timmy. She gasped for breath, but only inhaled smoke.

Coughing, she realized her mistake. She had to pause as her lungs struggled. Certainly a fine lady raised properly would have handled this situation better, she thought to herself. She would better care for her family and know how to protect them. But this was all she had. And she wanted to keep what she had. Gripping the child tightly by the shoulders, she tried to keep her voice light and calm. “Lead me, Timmy. We must hurry.” He took her other open hand and then a slow step forward.

It was a game they had played before, but quieter now and with higher stakes. There was no time for giggling. Neither of them said a word as they panted for breath. Aurelia realized the room was growing more stuffy with every step. She could feel the smoke billowing across her face. It was getting hard to breathe. Timmy moved forward, slowly but surely with each successful step, they started across the room. He led them around what must have been the chair and toward the exit. She could tell when they were close because of the heat. Then she realized why the room was so horribly stuffy.

The door to the room was closed. Timmy put her hand out to it for her to turn the knob, but it wouldn’t budge. Aurelia’s heart sunk. Her family’s old house was still in good repair. She had been there only months ago. There was no reason for it not to open. Panic clenched her soul as she held Timmy’s hand tightly in hers. Aurelia turned to look over her shoulder, though she knew she saw nothing. It was all so dark. Everything felt so helpless.

She reached up to feel the door, her fingers spread out as if to find some way to free them. “Help!” She cried out. “Hello? Please! Help us!” There was smoke clinging to her lungs as she shouted. As she gasped for more breath to call out for help for them, she heard banging on the other side of the door. Aurelia’s heart stopped. Covering Timmy’s hand in both of hers, they both gingerly took a step back as there was another thud. Then a third. After that, she flinched as she heard a crash in front of her, frightened of what it could have been. “Timmy!” Donovan’s hoarse voice called out. “Aurelia!” Tears of relief flooded down her face.

The child left her grasp as she felt the presence of her husband there. She put out a hand before her, feeling Donovan’s face. He was breathing hard and there was a stiffness to his jaw. “I’m getting you two out of here now,” he informed her. With that announcement, the Duke scooped her up in his arms along with his son. Aurelia’s heart hammered as she curled in close against his chest as she heard the flames crackling all around them. Only then did she feel hope inside her soul that they might get out safely. The fire must have been growing all this time. She wondered how much it would ultimately consume. As her husband carried them toward safety, she wondered if this fire would bring her another loss like the last one had.

Flames had taken so much from her in the past. T C H A P T E R 1 M A RCH 10 , 181 4 here was a blackcap bird singing in the nearby apple trees. Jocelyn and Bridget were sitting nearby while arguing about Mrs. Poppersby, hardly noticing the nature around them. The two of them rarely paid attention to the birds, of course. They liked to hear their own voices more than anything else. Most folks were like that. Sitting on a bench of her own, Aurelia wondered which tree the bird was singing in and if the bird liked that tree the most. Birds made for pleasant music to the young woman who used her ears to enjoy most of the world around her. Over the years, she had attuned them to learn the calls of different birds, different wagons, and all sorts of creatures.

But birds were her favorite. They had always struck her as a cheerful sort of creature. In her hands, she played with a rose that Bridget, her companion, had cut for her. The petals were as thick as they were soft. She closed her eyes as she tried to imagine how they might look. Her companion had mentioned this one was a soft pink, the color of an early sunrise. She had lost her sight over twenty years ago. After living a life without her eyes for much longer than she had used them, Aurelia had adapted to her sightless lifestyle in exile on her family’s property. Yet there were some days where she wished she could still see the blue sky, an intricate brocade, or the pink of a lovely rose. “If you had wanted to become the housekeeper, you could have had the role, I’m certain,” Bridget was teasing Jocelyn.

“You had only to write and ask the Duke.” “What?” Jocelyn squawked rather loudly. “And say what, exactly? ‘Sir Harold Blackmore, I’m only a lady’s maid but I’d like to become your head housekeeper for your Greenfair Estate’? I think not!” An embarrassed laugh bubbled out of her. “I could just as easily accept the role as you could.” Aurelia smiled as she listened to her friends. A blackcap was more musically inclined, but Bridget and Jocelyn could always make her laugh. The three of them had been together for several years now. It was just them together at Greenfair with the rest of her father’s household. They passed their days in the garden, the music room, and playing games. She liked how quiet and amiable it was for all of them.

It allowed everyone on the staff to shine in their own manner. It was Bridget’s turn for melodrama. She was usually the instigator of such activity. “But of course I could. After all, I have a close connection with his daughter, you see. I guide her and could just as easily guide the entire household.” “Like when I was seven and you were mad at me?” Aurelia asked pointedly with her chin raised, speaking up at last. Usually she let her two companions squabble, for it was more entertaining to listen than to participate. But the ability to slide in the occasional comment to overturn their silly little conversations gave her a delight like a newly wrapped Christmas gift. There wasn’t much she could do while she just sat there.

She could feel them turning to look at her. They always kept her in their sight, and she could always sense their presence. It was reassuring to know that she was never alone. Aurelia blinked as she tried to imagine their expressions. With the sun shining, the world wasn’t completely black to her. It was a soft shade of yellow with shadows where she assumed there were trees and the estate nearby. Everything was a blur that merged with each movement. When the accident happened, this used to give her a headache and make her dizzy. But it was something that she had grown used to over the years. When they were children, Bridget would lead her around the house in circles with nowhere to go whenever they were upset at one another.

“I wouldn’t, I’m not,” Bridget stammered as she looked for an excuse. The only problem Aurelia had when she inserted herself into her companions’ conversations and silly squabbles was that even now, after all these years, they tended to take her seriously. She was quiet most of the time so they always forgot she was the one tempting them to sneak out to the kitchens late at night for muffins or to play games in the dark around the house after everyone had gone to sleep. Her soft-mannered way of speaking as a Duke’s daughter had allowed her to be raised in grace, but also occasionally hindered her relationship with her friends who forgot that she enjoyed a good jest as well as anyone else. Aurelia smiled. “Exactly.” Upon realizing that she didn’t mean anything by her words, the other two girls giggled. There was the sound of footsteps across the cobblestones and then Aurelia found her maid and her guiding companion on either side of her. She stiffened in surprise before relaxing beside them. “What do you think?” Jocelyn proposed to her with a note of hesitation in her voice.

“With Mrs. Poppersby retiring, a new housekeeper must be found. It’s been over ten years since anyone retired from Greenfair. I think your father would rather promote someone who is already here, would he not?” The question sounded innocent enough. Aurelia considered answering the question. As the daughter of a duke, she had no reason to respond to either of these women, even if she considered them her friends. Nobody came or left the Greenfair Estate. Unless they were part of the family or part of the household, there was no reason for someone to step foot on the property. No one came to visit and no one left permanently until they retired, like Mrs. Poppersby had requested to do just last month.

If they were losing someone on the staff, it meant someone new had to come. The very thought made Aurelia’s stomach knot up. She would never share such a confession, but after all this time, she liked her quiet lifestyle. Whether someone called it exile, privacy, or another matter, it was her life. “I don’t quite know,” Aurelia claimed at last. “But Father arrives today and is here to meet someone. Whether they take Mrs. Poppersby’s position or another’s, I’m not certain.” No one could be employed on the estate unless her father personally vetted them. He went through every rule with them carefully and explained the strictures in detail.

It was a delicate matter, he had claimed. He never explained why, but everyone knew it was because of her. His blind daughter. Even though he had not lived there in two decades, it was still his property and she was still his daughter. He might not live here or care for her, but he would make sure that we are both cared for. She supposed that would have to be good enough.

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