Once Upon a Season
AS he popped the collar of his great coat against the chill morning mist, Ashford realized he did not know why he had come to the funeral. It was expected, of course, but he had flouted convention before, when it suited him. No, whatever compelled him was not societal expectations. It was odd because he was sure he did not want to be there. He looked at his mother out of the corner of his eye. She was weeping openly, but silently, a delicate lace handkerchief strangled in her right hand and pressed to her lips. On his other side, his cousin Mirabel also cried, but in great racking sobs that he could not help but be aware of even though he steadfastly refused to look. In fact, it seemed everyone was crying but him.
IT seemed everyone was crying but her. She wanted to mourn, she really did, but knowing Charles was dead and feeling that he was gone were totally different things. Even now, as her father's curate led a prayer for Charles' soul, she kept expecting a soldier to ride up, sharp in a red coat, saying a mistake had been made, that Charles had been found among the wounded. She knew that would not happen, of course—William had been there when their brother died, had held his hand, and been hit by shrapnel during his distraction. Luckily he would live, though a large bandage covered most of the left side of his face, and her mother had said he would never see out of that eye again. She knew that Charles must be dead, that William would never make a mistake like that, and yet, it seemed like surely Charles was alive somewhere in the world, he just was not with the family at the moment. It would be easy to delude herself for she had not seen Charles in over a year.
ASHFORD had not seen his grandmother in over a year, and he found it difficult to believe she was really gone. He supposed he should feel regret that he had never reconciled with her after his father's death, but he felt bitterly satisfied instead. A final bit of impudence that ought to have been beneath a man of eight and twenty.
And yet, he had come to this funeral when there were others that might have excused him from it. Far too many in fact. Napoleon may have been defeated at Waterloo two months ago, but the battle had claimed over seventeen-thousand British lives. As the Duke of Ashford and the head of the Remington family, Ashford's duty was politics, not war, but many of his classmates from Cambridge had been officers in Wellington's army. There had been mourning all over England these past months.
TOO many were being mourned all over England, Cat thought. In fact, in any other circumstances her employers would have demanded her presence at this time, for today they were burying the matriarch of the family, the Dowager Duchess of Ashford. Her charges, Lady Elizabeth Brooks and Miss Elizabeth White, would be in need of comfort, just a county away from where she now stood. But for Cat, family trumped work, so instead of holding the hands of her Elizabeths, she was clutching that of Annabelle, her youngest sister. Annabelle was pale except for her red-rimmed eyes, and Cat knew her sister probably wished to be standing next to their parents, but for once Mr. and Mrs. Alverton were too consumed with their own grief to comfort their eight remaining children. Paul and Robert, Cat's youngest brothers, stood tense and alone as they listened to the blessing, while Mary, Imogene, and William stood with their spouses (or in William's case, betrothed).Besides little Caleb, who was nuzzling his mother's breast, clearly needing to nurse soon, Mary and Imogene's children seemed a little bored—Cat supposed they did not fully understand, but they were standing close to their mothers, looking oddly old in their shabby black clothes. It was looking at the children that brought the tears, and finally the pressure that had been building in her chest ever since she read the news about Charles eased slightly. Annabelle squeezed her hand harder and leaned into her side. Thank the Lord for her family.
DAMN his family anyway. Six so-called cousins, an uncle, and his excuse for a mother surrounded him, and not a confidante in the group. Not even a regular correspondent. Besides his mother, they were all the result of his grandmother's second marriage, the marriage she chose over her own son. The dead duchess had abandoned her first son, Ashford's father, for an affair, leaving the boy to be raised by servants, lonely and isolated. His father had never forgiven the old woman, and neither would Ashford. It angered him to see his mother cry for her, but then she had always been a weak and foolish woman. Had not his father often complained of this, and sought companionship elsewhere? When he married his family would be whole; his children would know and respect both their parents. He would find a wife with a fine lineage, welcome in all the best houses, with an ease of manner and confidence that would be passed to his children. A wife that would never, never abandon her children, not for love or money. Ashford would marry well.
CAT wished to marry as well, but she knew it was not to be. She had accepted that when she was eighteen and left home to take employment as a governess. She was kept busy most of the day either teaching or monitoring her charges, and what spare time she had was constrained by convention. She was unable to flirt with men—in fact, had very limited experience with them—and never expected to engage a man's interest long enough to elicit a proposal of marriage. So there would be no great romantic love in her life, no infant growing in her belly. But there would be children—many, many children, as nephews and nieces and as pupils. In fact, in her current position as the governess for the Earl and Countess of Welmsby, Cat was happy beyond expectation, for the countess was an indulgent mother and unusually liberal, demanding her girls be as well-trained in mathematics and literature as they were in manners and needlepoint. And both Elizabeths—both named after their grandmother and having lived together since the age of three, when the countess' sister passed—were clever, fun, and kind. It had been her great pleasure to share her knowledge with them and help shape their minds, and soon they would debut before society as the ladies they were. In fact, they would have entered society this spring, if it had not been for the passing of their grandmother.
IF it had not been for the passing of his grandmother, Ashford probably would have looked for a bride this spring. As it were, his search would be delayed until next year. After the funeral service ended, he offered his arm to his mother and joined the others in the dining room, where a luncheon buffet had been laid out by servants. Sir Richard, his grandmother's other son, nominally Ashford's uncle, lost no time in approaching him.
“Ashford, you're looking well. But I must say, sir,” Sir Richard laid a confiding hand on Ashford's arm, “you ought to change your mind about Corn Laws. The tariffs will be good for our estates' incomes. There's really no point in catering to the London rabble, eh? They hardly know what's good for them.”
Ashford withdrew his arm from his “uncle's” grip, making no effort to be subtle about it. “You may address me as 'your Grace,' and I daresay that no, I think no such thing.”
Sir Richard turned a fairly alarming shade of purple, and he muttered a grudging, “Your grace,” before moving away. The Earl of Welmsby had caught the exchange, and having little fondness for his father-in-law, gave Ashford a polite nod before returning his focus to his wife, given Mirabel was still crying with a distressing degree of fervor.
Ashford turned to his mother. “Must we stay here the night, madam?”
“ARE you certain you won't stay the night, Kitty?” her mother asked, massaging Cat's hand as she did so.
“There's hardly room,” Cat pointed out, “since Mary is obliged to stay and Ann will be sleeping on the sofa as it is.”
Mrs. Alverton nodded. “I suppose that's true.” She sighed. “I'm glad you came. You must thank the countess for sending you by carriage....”
“Yes, of course, I will.”
“...and take some of the meat pasties for John Coachman...”
“...and let me get you some blankets, it's already becoming quite chill...”
“That's all right, there's blankets in the carriage. And a hot brick.”
Mrs. Alverton frowned, as if she suspected the Countess of Welmsby of providing thin blankets. Cat freed her hand from her mother's and wrapped her in a hug. “I love you, Mama. Please don't worry. I'll write you.”
“Yes, yes,” Mrs. Alverton sighed. “You're a good girl. Your brothers never write...wrote...” Fresh tears. From both of them.
It was a while before they broke the hug and even longer before Cat composed herself. In fact, the coach was nearly to Avonlea, her employers' estate, before stopped having emotional outbursts, and she hoped John Coachman, sitting on the coachman's bench outside the carriage, had not been too disturbed by her crying. Just then, she was surprised to hear a loud expletive from John. Alarmed, Cat quickly opened the window, and stuck her head out.
A horseman, on a large dark beast—it looked black in the twilight, and Cat's heart sped up the slightest bit; she had lately developed a penchant for gothic novels—had come around the bend riding hell for leather and seemed likely to collide with them. Happily, John managed to get his team to the side and the horseman, though reckless, was competent enough and guided his horse safely past.
“Goodness,” remarked Cat after a moment, “I didn't know anyone around here rode like that.”
“They don't, miss,” said John, “That was milady's cousin, the Duke of Ashford. The Bloomin' Rake, they call him.”
Despite herself, Cat twisted to look at John. “The Blooming Rake?” she echoed.
“'Deed, miss.” John massaged his chest, still recovering from his surprise. “Before he inherited, he was known by courtesy as the Marquess of Bloomsbury, and they say he seduced...” Suddenly John recalled to whom he spoke and coughed awkwardly. “Well, you don't be needing to know about that now, do ya.” He cleared his throat again. “He's 'round for the funeral. Staying at Langton, I expect.” Langton was the estate of the countess' father and ran alongside Avonlea.
“Hmm,” Cat replied. “Well, excellent driving, John.” She retired to the inside of the coach once more, her heart still beating embarrassingly fast.
ASHFORD'S heart was beating embarrassingly fast after his close encounter with the carriage on the Avonlea road. He slowed Bastion's breakneck pace, feeling rather sheepish for acting like a young buck rather than a mature man. It was too dark to be racing around the countryside; he had just needed to get out of the manor. Reluctantly, he turned Bastion around, the large gelding willing enough to head back since Ashford had given him his head.
At least the time alone had clarified some thoughts for him. He was ready to start a family of his own and do it properly. In a year, once he was out of mourning for his grandmother, he would find a bride and marry.Back to Top Read More Get the Book