Duke Series Box Set OneBy: Fenella J Miller
THE DUKE’S CHALLENGE
‘Promise me, Charlotte, you must promise me, that when I am gone you will go to your grandfather, take Beth and Harry with you.’
Charlotte swallowed the lump in her throat. ‘Please don’t talk about dying, Mama, you have had worse bouts of fever and recovered. I’m sure it will be no different this time.’
Mama closed her eyes. ‘I have very little time; we both know that, my darling. You must give me your word that whatever your feelings on the matter, you will take your brother and sister to Thurston Hall and persuade my father to take you in.’
Charlotte had no choice. Her beloved mother was fading, how could she deny her last wish? Her eyes brimmed as she bent down to kiss her mother’s pallid cheek. ‘I promise. I shall do as you wish. I’m going to call in Beth and Harry to say goodnight.’ They both knew she meant goodbye.
She rose gracefully and hurried across the sparsely furnished bedchamber to the door. She opened it softly. ‘Beth, Harry, you must come in now.’
Beth, at eleven, was almost her replica, with russet hair and a perfect oval face. Her white pinafore was crumpled from her long wait outside the chamber and her faded, blue cambric dress, tight around her chest. The girl scrambled to her feet, green eyes huge in her pale face. ‘Is it time? How can I bear it, Lottie?’
‘You have to be brave, my love, for Harry’s sake.’ She knelt down and shook her little brother gently. ‘Wake up, Harry. Mama wishes to speak to you.’
The boy yawned sleepily and rubbed his eyes, smiling up at her. Then he remembered and his face crumpled and he buried his face in her skirts. ‘Hush now, darling. We must not upset Mama. She will be going to join Papa in heaven very soon; we don’t want her last moments here on earth to be sad, do we?’
Charlotte led the reluctant children back into the room, the three candles scarcely enough to illuminate it. ‘Mama, we are here, we love you and you mustn’t worry. I shall take care of all of us. You can go to join Papa, he is waiting for you in Paradise.’
Mama opened her eyes and a faint smile flickered across her wasted features, then with a barely audible hiss, she breathed her last. For a moment Charlotte didn’t understand what had happened.
Beth whispered to her. ‘Lottie – Mama’s not breathing anymore.’ Then the girl snatched her hand free and ran sobbing from the room. Before Charlotte would react Harry vanished also, leaving her alone in the semi-darkness with the body of her mother.
Overwhelmed with grief, forgetting for a moment her promise to be strong, she collapsed across the bed, bathing her mother’s rapidly cooling features with her tears. She heard footsteps behind her.
‘Oh, miss, you must come away. Let me take care of her ladyship now.’ She felt the strong arms of her mother’s maid lift her, and she made no protest.
‘Thank you, Annie. I have to find the children, offer them what comfort I can.’ She hesitated, for once at a loss.
‘Go along, Miss Carstairs, Betty and I will take care of everything here. I sent young Bill to fetch the undertaker. Your mother didn’t wish you to be involved with the laying out.’
Charlotte left; there was nothing there to keep her. She paused in the draughty passageway, scrubbing her cheeks dry with her fists. She must push her own grief aside; she was the only mother Beth and Harry had now.
If only there was more time, but the funds they had relied on for the past two years would cease on her mother’s death. They had barely managed these past few months; the medical bills had bitten deeply into their limited resources.
The small house was rented, and was theirs for a few weeks longer, but then they would have to seek alternative accommodation, and it would have to be with Lord Thurston, the Duke of Lenster. She shivered at the thought of approaching the man who had cast off her mother when she had refused to marry the suitor he had selected for her and chosen instead to marry her childhood sweetheart, the dashing army captain, who had become her father, Major Charles Carstairs.
Charlotte recalled the terrible time two years ago when Papa had returned from the Battle of Waterloo grievously wounded. He had lingered on, in agony, before finally succumbing to his injuries a year ago. She had had only Annie and Betty to turn to for advice. It would be unfitting to discuss such matters with the staff so she had made the decision to write to her grandfather herself. The letter had been returned opened but with no reply. From that moment she had formed an implacable hatred for her the man who had rejected his only child for the second time. Now she had promised to take the children to live with him.
This would not do. She had responsibilities. Whatever her own feelings, when matters were concluded here, she had to travel to Thurston Hall. She had given her word.
However, she would not stay there; she was determined to find a position as a housekeeper, or maybe a companion. As soon as the children were comfortable she would depart, knowing she had fulfilled her mother’s deathbed request. At nineteen she was quite old enough to fend for herself. She was an accomplished seamstress, indeed, made all the family’s clothes and she could cook, clean, and manage a household. The fact that the duke would now be her legal guardian couldn’t be helped.
She would be considered too young for employment as a governess but prayed she might find a more menial position somewhere in the ranks of the wealthy trades people. Maybe one of them might be glad to employ a gentlewoman such as herself.
Upstairs she discovered her siblings. Beth was cradling her brother, rocking back and forth, as they both cried. ‘Come along, Beth, that will do,’ Charlotte admonished her gently. ‘You’re not helping. We must be strong. Harry is too small to understand.’
The small boy raised his tear-streaked face. ‘I’m not small, I’m a big boy, I’m four years old!’
‘You are, my love. And big boys don’t cry, they are brave and strong.’ She bent down, pulling the children to their feet. ‘We must look to the future, Mama is happy now with Papa in heaven.’ She removed a linen handkerchief from the pocket in her skirt and dried her brother’s eyes. ‘There now, Harry, no more tears, we promised Mama we would be happy for her, not sad.’ It took all her self-control to keep her voice from wobbling.
Beth slipped a small hand into hers and she was grateful for the contact. ‘It’s a fine day and I propose we go out for a walk. There are brambles ready to be picked in the lane.’ Their two faces turned up trustingly to her. ‘Shall we take baskets and pick some? Then we can ask Betty to make us a delicious bramble and apple tart for supper tonight.’
Harry beamed. ‘That’s my very best thing. Will Betty give me a basket if I run to the kitchen?’
Charlotte’s smile slipped at the reminder of what duties the cook was at that very moment performing. ‘No darling, we shall put on boots, then find your jacket and our cloaks, and collect the baskets on our way out.’
Three weeks later, at seven o’clock, Charlotte closed the door on the house in which she had spent the last five years and led her small party down the steps to the waiting diligence.
‘Mornin’, Miss Carstairs. A lovely day for a journey,’ Mr Turner, the carter, called as he waited reins in hand, to depart. ‘Your trunks are all safely stowed.’
‘Thank you, Mr Turner; I am sorry we have kept you waiting.’ Charlotte lifted Harry into the vehicle and offered her hand to Beth, who ignored it and scrambled up unaided. ‘Annie, can you and Betty manage the bags or do you need Mr Turner’s assistance?’
‘Bless you, we can manage fine, thank you, miss. You get yourselves settled; Betty and I can take care of these.’
Glad both Annie and Betty had decided to take their chances with them at Thurston Hall, Charlotte climbed into the cart. Harry and Beth shifted up the hard wooden seat to make room for her. Once Annie and Betty were safely aboard, seated next to Mr Turner, he slapped the reins and the large brown horse ambled forward.
‘Is it far to the White Hart, Lottie?’ Harry asked between bounces.
She righted her bonnet before answering. ‘A mile, no more. I have allowed ample time to reach our destination. The mail coach does not depart until twelve minutes past nine.’
Beth chimed in. ‘Is Thurston Hall a long way from Ipswich, Lottie? Will grandfather send a carriage for us, do you think?’
Charlotte hated to lie to them but she had no choice. ‘Thurston Hall is less than five miles from Ipswich, where we alight from the mail coach tomorrow, and I am sure grandfather will have made some arrangement to transport all of us to our new home.’
She couldn’t tell any of them that Lord Thurston was not even aware of their imminent arrival. She had decided it would be better to give him no opportunity to refuse to take them in.
It would be much harder to send them packing if they were already on his doorstep.
By the time they arrived in Ipswich and descended, for the last time, from the mail coach, the children were fractious and she was exhausted. Charlotte checked the time on the large clock in the vestibule of the inn. ‘It’s too late to travel to Thurston today. We shall overnight here and set out, refreshed and tidy, tomorrow morning.’