Wedded in Scandal Excerpt

Wedded in Scandal by Jade Lee

Wedded in Scandal

Chapter 1

“Yer wants to go in there? But, er, why?”

Robert Percy, Viscount Redhill, ignored the mine manager and began stripping off his coat and gloves. They were in the shack outside a coal mine that his father had purchased in a fit of drunken entrepreneurship. Sadly, the earl didn’t fall down in his cups like a normal person. No, instead he bought businesses, which Robert then had to save. And given that no one in his family knew anything about coal mining, this was going to be a challenge indeed.

But the first step in a new venture—or after one of his father’s drinking binges—was to inspect the new property. So he was determined to go down into the hellhole of a mine despite Mr. Hutchins’s objections. He’d already pulled off his coat and folded it neatly to the side, but after one glance outside at the filthy employees all lined up near the mine entrance, he stripped off his waistcoat as well. He would have taken off his fine lawn shirt, but he couldn’t greet his new employees half naked.

“It’s mighty dark down there,” continued Mr. Hutchins, his full whiskers twitching in agitation. Truly, the long nose and scrunched face made the man resemble a rat in some rather unfortunate ways. A rat who obviously did not like leaving his nest.

“Last I recall, the dark never hurt anybody.”

“That’s ’cause ‘anybody’ ain’t been down in the mines,” Mr. Hutchins groused. Then he sighed heavily and pulled his rather impressive bulk out of his chair. “I think yer daft, milord, but if yer insisting, I’ll have Charlie show you about.”

Robert paused, his gaze narrowing down to a few pertinent details. First of all was Mr. Hutchins’s girth. His waist was just the right size if he were a draft horse. Second, everything in here was filthy, but not with coal dust. No, he could barely breathe for the stink of cigar. And third, Mr. Hutchins had a telltale wheeze when he moved even around this small office.

“When was the last time you were down in the mines, Mr. Hutchins?” he asked.

“Wot? Why jest last week, I’m sure. But it’s a filthy place and beastly hot.”

“I believe that a manager should see what he manages, don’t you, Mr. Hutchins?”

“Oh, I do, I do!” he said as he wiped the sweat from his balding pate. “Go down there every year to inspect the new finds. Now, if you wish to see something most interesting, I can take you to inspect our carts. They’re in a terrible way, milord—”

“I will definitely inspect them, Mr. Hutchins. After I see the mine.” And so saying, Robert left the filthy mine office to head toward the black cave hole of an entrance. All around him, scrawny men, women, and children tugged their forelock or curtsied as he passed. He smiled at each of them, feeling the bizarre echo of when he’d last traveled to his family’s Scotland estate. All the servants had lined up then as well to greet the young master of the estate. But those people had been well fed and clean. These people had coal dust encrusted in their very skin and a haunted, hollow look to their eyes.

Bloody hell, what was his father thinking buying such a place? Even half drunk, his father could have seen how very sick these people were. But his father had never actually inspected his new purchase. No, he left that to Robert to perform after all the papers had been signed.

Mr. Hutchins made his way to his side, his wheezing growing louder as they crossed the rocky ground. “You sure ye don’t want to inspect the books? I’m an excellent bookkeeper, I assure you. You’ll find everything in order. Every copper accounted for!”

Robert nodded, his gaze picking out the bleeding hands of a child standing nearby. “Who is that boy there?”

“That? That’s Charlie’s sis Brenda.”

That was a girl? “She works in the mines?”

“Our last mine horse died a year ago from the air. Ain’t good for horses, you know. Then I realized that two or three young uns can pull a cart just as well and they appreciate the work. Helps their families, you know, and is cheaper fer us. Lord Brimley said it were good thinking.”

Robert didn’t doubt it. Lord Brimley was a pinchpenny in all aspects of his life except for his brandy. That made him, of course, a great jolly good friend to Robert’s father.

“As my family now owns this mine, Lord Brimley’s opinions are of no interest to me. And I shall see that there are new horses immediately.”

“Oh. Oh, dear. But what shall I tell the parents of all those dear children?”

“That their children should enjoy the fresh air while they are young. And that they shall be paid for the care of the horses instead.”

Robert didn’t wait to see Mr. Hutchins’s reaction to that statement but bent his attention to the mine entrance. Or more accurately, he spent a moment fighting his nausea at the thought of entering that dark maw. Mr. Hutchins must have sensed his hesitation as he sidled up.

“Perhaps you’d rather see the books first.”

Robert ground his teeth together and forced his stiff legs to obey him. It wasn’t a maw, for God’s sake. It was a mine entrance and dozens of workers went in and out of it every day. Women and children. He could go down despite the air of depressing filth that infused the entire county. An unhealthy miasma, to be sure.

“Charlie! Charlie, my boy!” called Mr. Hutchins. “Come along and show his lordship the ladders. Mind that you point out all the interesting bits.”

Charlie was no more a boy than Robert was. But he was obviously younger than Mr. Hutchins and had a warm smile that included all his teeth. “Aye, sir. Right this way, milord. First ladder is jes’ inside.” Then he walked quick as a wink into that dark maw.

Robert squared his shoulders and followed. He only paused once, and that was to glance back at Mr. Hutchins. “You know, I’m not sure Charlie will know quite all the things to show me. I believe I require your expert guidance.”

Mr. Hutchins had the predictable response: a grimace of distaste quickly covered. But he followed and now Robert was forced to step lively or be shown as craven as the heavyset Hutchins.

They moved slowly, Mr. Hutchins wheezing the entire way. They descended three more ladders, lit two barely flickering candles, and passed a dilapidated cart before Hutchins came to his first interesting tidbit.

“There’s the bones of the first fireman killed here, over a hundred years ago. Was burning off the gas, he was, and not a very fast runner, obviously.”

“My God,” Robert breathed. “Why wasn’t he taken up and buried?”

“Oh, well, it ain’t really his bones,” said Charlie. “Just the spare bits of a horse, I think, but we say it’s a miner to scare the kids into taking the work serious. The little ones especially need to be kept in line. It’s dangerous work down here, and we can’t have them thinking it’s games.”

Robert frowned. “Why would anyone think it’s a game?” When his father had first informed him of this mine purchase, Robert had rapidly tried to learn everything he could about coal mining. He was aware of some of the terrible dangers miners faced daily. He couldn’t imagine a child in this hellhole, much less that any would consider it a game.

“Ah, well, you know children,” Charlie said with a sad smile. “It’s hard on them at first, but there are some that will make fun of the worst things.”

Robert had no answer except that he never wanted this mine to employ a child ever again. If it were up to him, no man would have to come down here, either, but then again the nation needed its coal.

“I think that’s far enough, don’t you think?” asked Hutchins. Robert couldn’t really see the man in the dim light, but he could smell the sweat. Or maybe that was his own, as the heat was suffocating.

“No,” Robert forced out. “Show me where you’re working now.”

“But that’s a ways further down, my lord,” said Charlie, doubt lacing his tone. “And it’s none too pleasant.”

“Lead on,” he said grimly while his gut tightened. Then, to distract himself, he began asking questions of Charlie. Mr. Hutchins didn’t have the breath to answer, but Charlie had a good head and full understanding of the work being done. Robert’s head was nearly bursting with information when they came to the newest cut.

Miners were there with pickaxes and shovels, all stooped over as they worked. Robert’s clothing was drenched in sweat, and his head was pounding from the noise and the thick air, yet he was still compelled to greet every man and compliment his work as any noble lord should. It was his responsibility, and so he did his best though inside he was screaming to leave. And then he asked a most terrible question.

“But,” said Robert, looking at the rickety wood supports in the tunnel, “can those possibly be safe? What if someone accidentally knocked it with a shovel? Or if a child drove a cart into it?”

“We take care not to,” answered Charlie. That wasn’t a terribly inspiring answer to Robert, who was lifting his candle to inspect the wood. To his eye, it was thin and worm-eaten.

“Keep that down!” rasped Mr. Hutchins in a gasping cry. “Do you want to kill us all?”

“There’s no firedamp here, sir,” said Charlie gently, as if he were talking to a child. “We bled off the gas just yesterday. That’s why we’s working here, if you recall. You wanted to tell his lordship about the fresh tunnel.”

“Yes, yes, but you can never be too careful,” said the manager. “Gas is the very plague down here, your lordship. And it hovers at the top of the cave.”

Which was why all the candles were set on the floor or in low crevices, Robert realized. “I’m not so worried about the gas right now as the wood. Where did you get it?”

“Got a right nice lot in a few months ago. Found it meself. Cheap and sturdy.”

Robert looked at the miners. None of them seemed to agree, but they didn’t speak up. Mr. Hutchins must have seen it or perhaps he was used to defending his purchases. Either way he wheezed his way over to the largest of the support beams.

“Sturdy, I tell you. It’s good wood!”

“But it’s too thin, sir,” inserted Charlie. “It don’t hold in place and it don’t hold strong.”

“’Course it does. You just have to make sure it’s seated right. Look here.” He squatted down and brushed at the base of the beam. “Seat it solid like this, and nothing will bring it down.”

Robert dutifully inspected the base of the beam. It certainly did look well braced to him, but what did he know? And how could one see by the light of a few paltry guttering candles?

“You’ve done a good job bracing it, Charlie,” he said as he inspected the smaller wood pieces that ringed the beam.

“Thank you, sir, but—”

“Don’t you worry, Charlie,” interrupted Mr. Hutchins. “This here is good wood and extra safe with those braces.” He pushed to his feet, or at least he tried to. But given his size, he had to grab hold of the wall to help himself. It would have been fine, but the wall crumbled a bit beneath his hand, and the falling rocks hit a candle, knocking it over. Mr. Hutchins, obviously fearing for his clothing, jumped backward. But he was not a man who could jump easily. He lost his footing and tripped over another rock. Which brought him right up against the support beam with all his terrible weight.

Robert sighed. All he saw was a fat man falling down. A man who ought to be able to maneuver better in the mine he supervised. But the mine workers understood more. They saw one of Mr. Hutchins’s feet knock aside two of the bracing wood pieces before his full body slammed hard against the beam. The wood slid out of its seating with a scrape that was almost inaudible. But the men heard it and were rushing up and out of the tunnel long before Robert realized the danger.

Only Charlie stayed behind, his arms reaching up to grab the beam before it toppled completely. Robert joined him a second later, but it was too late. They had no secure hold on the beam. The thing fell to the ground, bringing down another roof support that fell squarely on the toppled Mr. Hutchins’s legs.

That was when the dirt began to fall. Hard rocks, tiny pebbles, choking dust poured down. Something heavy slammed into Robert’s shoulder, but didn’t bring him down.

“Run!” he screamed at Charlie, but his voice was choked off by the dust. He could barely see. God only knew how some of the candles still burned in the thick air. Robert grabbed Charlie’s arm and hauled him past the growing pile of debris. Then he shoved Charlie up the tunnel before squatting down to help Mr. Hutchins, who was howling like the very devil.

Going completely by feel, Robert ran his hands over Mr. Hutchins. The man was half covered in dirt, but he could find no other obvious injury. Already the man was clawing his way backward, slowly pulling himself out from the pile of rocks. But he wasn’t working fast enough and would never get free in time.

Squatting down, Robert gripped the man beneath his armpits and hauled. Good God, the man must weigh fifteen stone! But he heaved. And Mr. Hutchins moved. And together, they worked him out enough that he could be dragged clear.

Charlie met them ten feet later, along with two other miners who waited beneath the more solid supports. With more hands to help, Mr. Hutchins was at last pulled to his feet. At least his screaming had stopped. The air was too thick with dust for anyone to speak.

Then they all stumbled, climbed, and hauled one another up the ladders to the blessedly clean air. Mr. Hutchins collapsed just outside the entrance. By his wheezing breath, Robert knew the man was still alive. And in the sunlight, he didn’t see any blood beyond the small cuts that they all sported. Probably bruised badly and would soon hurt like the very devil, but just in case, Robert performed the medical inspection he’d been taught.

He ran his hands over the man’s body, steadily, carefully probing for broken bones or unseen wounds. Nothing unexpected appeared.

“You’ll live, Mr. Hutchins,” he finally managed to push out through his raw throat. Then he turned to look at the other miners. “Anyone else hurt?”

“No, milord,” said Charlie. “Weren’t a real cave-in. Just a slide, like, and we’re all faster than him.”

“Good, good,” said Robert as he dropped to his knees. Bloody hell, he felt weaker than a kitten. “One more thing, Mr. Hutchins.”

“Yes, my lord?” the man wheezed.

“You’re fired.”

Helaine Talbott looked at the huge edifice before her and tried not to tremble. It was a wealthy home in an exclusive neighborhood. Five years ago, she would have sailed up the walkway, assured of her acceptance. But that was before her father had exposed himself as the Thief of the Ton. That was before his friends had cut him, his clubs had blackballed him, and he had disappeared to parts unknown. That was before his wife and daughter had sunk to the pits of penniless despair. And that was well before Helaine had discovered a strength inside her that defied even her father’s terrible blunders.

That was before, and this was now. She had to remind herself that she was not coming to this establishment as a petitioner. She was offering a business deal, straight and simple. With luck and a lot of charm, she would emerge victorious. She would have to, because failing today would mean the poorhouse tomorrow.

So she steeled her spine, went up the walkway, and took the knocker firmly, though she had to work around the faded black ribbon that signified mourning. Helaine was wearing her best gown, one appropriate to her former status. And when the door pulled open on well-oiled hinges, she gave the butler her most aloof smile.

“I am here to visit with Lady Irene. Just tell her I’m an old school friend, as she won’t know my current name.”

Such a cavalier attitude toward name would not be allowed in a pedigreed household. But this was a cit’s home, a family made wealthy through the shipping trade. Yes, Lady Irene had married down in title, but definitely up in wealth. As such, old friends from school would be rare indeed. Helaine had found that out herself when all of her childhood friends began giving her the cut direct.

“You have no card?” sneered the butler.

“Oh!” she gasped as she abruptly spun around. “My reticule!” Her reticule was safety settled on her dresser at home, but she pretended the height of despair. “I left it in the hackney! Oh, my! What am I to do now? I am visiting here and . . . oh, dear,” she moaned.

It worked. The butler sighed and gestured her inside. From there it was a simple matter to smile up at the lady of the household, who was just now descending the stairs. Her name was Mrs. Knopp, and she was Irene’s mother-in-law. She was also everything that the ton liked to decry as an encroaching cit. She was large and loud and much too wealthy.

Five years ago, Helaine would have noticed only that much and looked no deeper. But she was wiser now and took the time to see other small details about the woman. Her mourning dress was done in the most expensive fabric and style, so the household suffered no financial strain. But there was a great deal of strain in the lady’s eyes and her slightly forced gestures. Despite the woman’s bright smile, Helaine could see a sadness about her, as if a mantle of pain weighed her down.

It was grief, of course. The woman had lost her only son. Still, her voice was strong enough as she peered down at Helaine.

“Smithee! Who have we here?”

The butler responded in sneering tones. “She claims to be an old school friend of Lady Irene.”

“Really?” A gleam of interest sparked in Mrs. Knopp’s eyes. She rushed down the last few steps to Helaine’s side. “A school friend, you say? Oh, it shall be ever so excellent for Irene to see you. She has been so withdrawn. She needs an old friend to bring her out of her room, take her shopping and the like. Maybe to a party or two. It’s perfectly acceptable, you know, though she’s not out of mourning yet. But a party or something, one where her dearest mama could remain at her side.”

Irene’s “dearest mama” was Mrs. Knopp. Irene’s real mother had passed on more than a decade before. Obviously the cit had hopes that Irene would bring the family access to the upper echelons of the ton. And Irene’s father had resurrected the ancient practice of a bride price so that the earldom would be well compensated for Irene’s sacrifice in marrying down.

Helaine smiled as warmly as she dared without raising the lady’s hopes. “I don’t attend many parties these days, Mrs. Knopp, but I should dearly love to talk to Irene for a bit to see how she fares. We used to be good friends.”

Mrs. Knopp took the slight well, nodding as if she expected no less. “Well, I must say the visit is most excellent nonetheless. Smithee, go tell Irene she has a friend here and order tea. We shall settle in for a nice chat in the salon.”

“I am right here,” returned a quiet, delicate voice. It was Irene, gliding down the hallway from the back of the house. “There is no need—Helaine! Is that you?”

Helaine felt her breath release at the warmth in her friend’s voice. She had not been certain of her welcome. After all, Irene had merely married a cit. Helaine’s fall had been much, much deeper.

“Yes, Irene, it’s me. Will you let me sit with you for a while? I have missed our late-night whispers.”

Helaine saw it all flash through her friend’s expression. The memory of why they had stopped communicating. Of all that had passed in the intervening years. As girls they had bonded over poverty, both understanding the silent misery of having titled fathers who were perpetually broke. Helaine’s disgrace had come first, but Irene had been pulled from school soon afterward because her father couldn’t pay her tuition. And neither of them had seen each other since.

A million expressions flitted through Irene’s face, but none settled long. And then her once best friend sighed and looked at her hands. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to return to our beds back at school? To whisper about the new cook—”

“And her terrible cherry tarts!” Helaine felt a laugh bubble up from nowhere, free and lighthearted, as she hadn’t felt in so very long. “And how I shall never learn to darn socks!”

Irene smiled, bringing a softness to a face too harsh with angles. “You did have a terrible hand.”

“Still do, to tell the truth,” she said.

“And I still cannot manage to dress my hair in anything but a straight braid.” Irene gestured to the long thick cord of black hair that fell down her back.

They waited there a moment, both standing in the hallway staring at one another. Helaine had the impulse to hug her friend, and yet she didn’t dare. By society’s rules, that would be much too presumptuous. And Irene, too, looked uncomfortable.

It was Mrs. Knopp who rescued them, half escorting, half dragging Helaine into the front salon. “Come, come, we can’t be gadding about in the hallway. Come into the parlor. Smithee! Tea, right away. And do we have any tasty tarts for Irene’s dear friend?”

The butler bowed with a touch less doubt in his expression. “Right away, madam.” Then he departed while the three women settled in the opulent salon.

But then once again an awkward silence descended. Once, she and Irene could not stop talking to one another. But now, they both stared at their hands. Helaine felt most awkward of all because she could not broach her business proposal with Mrs. Knopp right there. But neither could she ask to take a tour about the gardens or whatnot. Not after tea and tarts had been summoned.

Again it was Mrs. Knopp who came to the rescue. She asked about their friendship at school, about the terrible tarts, and then—of course—about her family. Helaine answered truthfully, identifying her father as the Earl of Chelmorton. Nothing would come of hiding it, but then a miracle happened! Mrs. Knopp did not know of her father’s terrible crime. She did not speak to Helaine as if she were the daughter of the Thief of the Ton. She merely pressed to discover whether or not Helaine was married and if there was much good husband hunting in London now before the Season began.

It was all quite lovely, and so very normal as to be abnormal. She had not had a conversation like this in years and Irene was kind enough not to spoil it. But then the time for an afternoon visit passed. Half an hour. Forty-five minutes. Soon it would be an hour, and she could not stay longer. She had to speak to Irene alone.

She began with the most casual of inquiries. “You have such a lovely home. Does it have a back garden as well?”

“Oh, lawks, no,” squealed Mrs. Knopp. “I daresay that Irene misses the gardens and the dirt, but I can’t say as I do. I was born and grown in London. It’s the fresh air that makes me cough!”

“But there is a park,” said Irene in a quiet voice. It was disconcerting. As a girl, Irene could be amazingly shrill, but now she was beyond subdued. One might even suggest cowed. “I was thinking of going there just when you called. Should you like to join me?”

Helaine smiled her gratitude. Irene had always known just when Helaine wished to be private. “That would be lovely.”

Mrs. Knopp laughed too loudly. “I am afraid I will not join you on Irene’s constitutional. She looks frail, to be sure, but she has the devil’s own stride!”

It worked out better than expected. While Irene left to change her clothes, Helaine was able to get Mrs. Knopp talking about her husband’s business. As was true of many cits, she had a basic understanding of her husband’s line of work and was rather proud of him to boot. Helaine learned that the Knopp Family Shipping Company was extensive indeed. Better and better. And then Irene came back, they stepped outside, and suddenly everything changed.

Irene was sick. Helaine couldn’t be sure why she hadn’t seen it before. Perhaps it was because the lighting was never very bright inside London homes. But the moment they stepped outside into the brilliant sunshine, Helaine had to struggle to suppress her shock. Irene’s skin was so pale as to be virtually translucent. And she was so thin as to be gaunt.

“Oh, Irene, is Mrs. Knopp so very terrible? She seemed rather nice in a loud sort of way.”

Irene turned, her eyes widening in surprise. “What? Oh, no, she is quite sweet.”

“So you are happy living there?” That was a rather blunt way to put it, but the question needed to be asked. For a multitude of reasons.

Irene merely shrugged, her face averted as they wandered down the lane. “I suppose I am as happy here as I would be anywhere.” She paused and flashed Helaine a mischievous look that so resembled the girl she used to be. “And the food is much better than anything I had at home or at school.”

“But do you eat it?” The words were out before Helaine could stop herself.

“What?” Irene asked, her expression slipping back to vague. “Of course I eat.”

They turned a corner and, far ahead, Helaine could see the park. Despite what Mrs. Knopp had said earlier, Helaine wondered if Irene could make it so far a distance.

“Irene,” she said softly, putting a hand on her friend’s arm, “forgive me, but are you well?”

Irene slowed, obviously reluctantly. “I am tired all the time,” she finally confessed. “And I weep at the strangest things. A sound. A smell. I know it is grief. I know that it has become a danger to my health. I know it, and yet . . .” She shook her head. “I cannot seem to stop it.”

“Grief?” Helaine asked. “For your father?” Irene’s father had died a bit more than a year ago, but there hadn’t been much love between them. “Or perhaps you grieve what might have been,” she said, her thoughts turning to her own life. “I often wonder what would have become of me if my father hadn’t been . . . well, if he hadn’t been such an incredible idiot.”

Irene’s smile was wistful, but there was a tautness in her body that felt almost like anger. And her hands were clenched so tightly it was a wonder no bones broke.

“Irene?”

“I grieve for Jeremy,” she said, her words almost clipped. And right there, Helaine saw a flash of the girl who used to be. The one who would sometimes rant about injustice and the cruelty of having a father who lived solely to hunt and eat. “I grieve for my husband and the life we never had.”

“Oh!” cried Helaine, her face flooding with mortification. How ridiculous that she had never suspected such a thing. “But the nature of your engagement . . . the things that were said . . . I was well out of the social round by then, but even I heard.” She bit her lip, trying to stop the flood of words. “I beg your pardon, Irene. I cannot think how stupid I sound. Please, please, forgive me.”

Irene released a soft sigh, then began walking again toward the park. Her steps were fast, as if she were outrunning some demon, but then she tired and once again returned to a pace that Helaine could easily match.

“I know what was said about us,” Irene said. “How Papa made Jeremy pay a bride price for me. About how terrible he was to sell me to the highest bidder. It wasn’t true, you know. It was never true. But I let them say it because it was the only way Papa would let us marry.”

“You loved him!” The words came out as a kind of shocked exhale.

Irene lifted her face to the sun. “I was so angry, and he made me laugh. He called me beautiful and brought me treats.” She glanced at Helaine. “No one had ever brought me treats except for you and you were gone.”

Now it was Helaine’s turn to look away. The less said about her departure the better.

“Yes, I loved him. But he had to go on that damned boat. He had to prove himself a seaman and a captain.”

Helaine glanced at her friend’s face. “Was he very bad at it?”

“Oh, no. He was very good, but even a good man can die at sea. They said there were pirates, but Jeremy rallied the crew and fought them off. But he was wounded and grew ill. They even cut off his arm to try and save him, but it was too late.”

“Oh, my God,” Helaine whispered. “How horrible!”

“We learned of it ten months ago, but he was three months at sea before that. So a year has passed since I last saw him. A year since he held me in his arms. A year since . . .” Her voice broke and she rushed forward. They were near enough to the park now for her to reach a bench. Irene half stumbled, half collapsed onto the seat. But then she just sat there, her eyes gazing off at a nanny pushing a pram.

“Oh, Irene, was there a baby?”

She shook her head. “No child. And sometimes I wonder if that is a blessing. I do not know that I could care for a child.”

“Of course you could,” Helaine said firmly. “There is a strength that appears when one most needs it.”

Irene’s gaze shifted to Helaine. “Do you think so?”

“Of course I do.” It was a ridiculous discussion since there hadn’t been a babe. Still, Irene seemed to take comfort in it. Sadly, it put paid to any hope that Helaine had of success in her mission. She could not ask a grieving woman to set everything aside and . . . well, and become even lower than a woman who had married a cit for love.

So she sat there with her once best friend and looked at the nannies and their charges. They stayed there for nearly a half hour when Irene abruptly shook herself out of her reverie.

“Come now, out with it. What did you want to ask me?”

Helaine started guiltily. “I’m sorry?”

“Don’t try to hide, Helaine. You forget that I watched you hide that shrew Claudia’s socks. You didn’t come visit me on a whim. You have something to ask.”

Helaine lifted her shoulder in a shrug. “I came to make an offer to a desperate woman trapped in an unhappy home. I was wrong to assume such a thing, and I deeply apologize.”

“But you weren’t entirely wrong. I am unhappy. Just not for the reasons you assumed.”

“Either way—”

“Either way, you shall ask me what you came to ask. And then we shall see what is to be made of it.”

Helaine nodded. In truth, she had no other choice if she wanted to avoid the poorhouse. And yet it was so desperately hard to confess. How did one explain her choices to a woman who had fallen in love and married into wealth?

“Come, come, Helaine. It can’t be so hard. I already know about your father’s sins.”

“But not my own.”

Irene merely raised her eyebrows in query. In the end, Helaine gave in.

“Do you know what I became after my father died?”

 

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Chapter 1

“Yer wants to go in there? But, er, why?”

Robert Percy, Viscount Redhill, ignored the mine manager and began stripping off his coat and gloves. They were in the shack outside a coal mine that his father had purchased in a fit of drunken entrepreneurship. Sadly, the earl didn’t fall down in his cups like a normal person. No, instead he bought businesses, which Robert then had to save. And given that no one in his family knew anything about coal mining, this was going to be a challenge indeed.

But the first step in a new venture—or after one of his father’s drinking binges—was to inspect the new property. So he was determined to go down into the hellhole of a mine despite Mr. Hutchins’s objections. He’d already pulled off his coat and folded it neatly to the side, but after one glance outside at the filthy employees all lined up near the mine entrance, he stripped off his waistcoat as well. He would have taken off his fine lawn shirt, but he couldn’t greet his new employees half naked.

“It’s mighty dark down there,” continued Mr. Hutchins, his full whiskers twitching in agitation. Truly, the long nose and scrunched face made the man resemble a rat in some rather unfortunate ways. A rat who obviously did not like leaving his nest.

“Last I recall, the dark never hurt anybody.”

“That’s ’cause ‘anybody’ ain’t been down in the mines,” Mr. Hutchins groused. Then he sighed heavily and pulled his rather impressive bulk out of his chair. “I think yer daft, milord, but if yer insisting, I’ll have Charlie show you about.”

Robert paused, his gaze narrowing down to a few pertinent details. First of all was Mr. Hutchins’s girth. His waist was just the right size if he were a draft horse. Second, everything in here was filthy, but not with coal dust. No, he could barely breathe for the stink of cigar. And third, Mr. Hutchins had a telltale wheeze when he moved even around this small office.

“When was the last time you were down in the mines, Mr. Hutchins?” he asked.

“Wot? Why jest last week, I’m sure. But it’s a filthy place and beastly hot.”

“I believe that a manager should see what he manages, don’t you, Mr. Hutchins?”

“Oh, I do, I do!” he said as he wiped the sweat from his balding pate. “Go down there every year to inspect the new finds. Now, if you wish to see something most interesting, I can take you to inspect our carts. They’re in a terrible way, milord—”

“I will definitely inspect them, Mr. Hutchins. After I see the mine.” And so saying, Robert left the filthy mine office to head toward the black cave hole of an entrance. All around him, scrawny men, women, and children tugged their forelock or curtsied as he passed. He smiled at each of them, feeling the bizarre echo of when he’d last traveled to his family’s Scotland estate. All the servants had lined up then as well to greet the young master of the estate. But those people had been well fed and clean. These people had coal dust encrusted in their very skin and a haunted, hollow look to their eyes.

Bloody hell, what was his father thinking buying such a place? Even half drunk, his father could have seen how very sick these people were. But his father had never actually inspected his new purchase. No, he left that to Robert to perform after all the papers had been signed.

Mr. Hutchins made his way to his side, his wheezing growing louder as they crossed the rocky ground. “You sure ye don’t want to inspect the books? I’m an excellent bookkeeper, I assure you. You’ll find everything in order. Every copper accounted for!”

Robert nodded, his gaze picking out the bleeding hands of a child standing nearby. “Who is that boy there?”

“That? That’s Charlie’s sis Brenda.”

That was a girl? “She works in the mines?”

“Our last mine horse died a year ago from the air. Ain’t good for horses, you know. Then I realized that two or three young uns can pull a cart just as well and they appreciate the work. Helps their families, you know, and is cheaper fer us. Lord Brimley said it were good thinking.”

Robert didn’t doubt it. Lord Brimley was a pinchpenny in all aspects of his life except for his brandy. That made him, of course, a great jolly good friend to Robert’s father.

“As my family now owns this mine, Lord Brimley’s opinions are of no interest to me. And I shall see that there are new horses immediately.”

“Oh. Oh, dear. But what shall I tell the parents of all those dear children?”

“That their children should enjoy the fresh air while they are young. And that they shall be paid for the care of the horses instead.”

Robert didn’t wait to see Mr. Hutchins’s reaction to that statement but bent his attention to the mine entrance. Or more accurately, he spent a moment fighting his nausea at the thought of entering that dark maw. Mr. Hutchins must have sensed his hesitation as he sidled up.

“Perhaps you’d rather see the books first.”

Robert ground his teeth together and forced his stiff legs to obey him. It wasn’t a maw, for God’s sake. It was a mine entrance and dozens of workers went in and out of it every day. Women and children. He could go down despite the air of depressing filth that infused the entire county. An unhealthy miasma, to be sure.

“Charlie! Charlie, my boy!” called Mr. Hutchins. “Come along and show his lordship the ladders. Mind that you point out all the interesting bits.”

Charlie was no more a boy than Robert was. But he was obviously younger than Mr. Hutchins and had a warm smile that included all his teeth. “Aye, sir. Right this way, milord. First ladder is jes’ inside.” Then he walked quick as a wink into that dark maw.

Robert squared his shoulders and followed. He only paused once, and that was to glance back at Mr. Hutchins. “You know, I’m not sure Charlie will know quite all the things to show me. I believe I require your expert guidance.”

Mr. Hutchins had the predictable response: a grimace of distaste quickly covered. But he followed and now Robert was forced to step lively or be shown as craven as the heavyset Hutchins.

They moved slowly, Mr. Hutchins wheezing the entire way. They descended three more ladders, lit two barely flickering candles, and passed a dilapidated cart before Hutchins came to his first interesting tidbit.

“There’s the bones of the first fireman killed here, over a hundred years ago. Was burning off the gas, he was, and not a very fast runner, obviously.”

“My God,” Robert breathed. “Why wasn’t he taken up and buried?”

“Oh, well, it ain’t really his bones,” said Charlie. “Just the spare bits of a horse, I think, but we say it’s a miner to scare the kids into taking the work serious. The little ones especially need to be kept in line. It’s dangerous work down here, and we can’t have them thinking it’s games.”

Robert frowned. “Why would anyone think it’s a game?” When his father had first informed him of this mine purchase, Robert had rapidly tried to learn everything he could about coal mining. He was aware of some of the terrible dangers miners faced daily. He couldn’t imagine a child in this hellhole, much less that any would consider it a game.

“Ah, well, you know children,” Charlie said with a sad smile. “It’s hard on them at first, but there are some that will make fun of the worst things.”

Robert had no answer except that he never wanted this mine to employ a child ever again. If it were up to him, no man would have to come down here, either, but then again the nation needed its coal.

“I think that’s far enough, don’t you think?” asked Hutchins. Robert couldn’t really see the man in the dim light, but he could smell the sweat. Or maybe that was his own, as the heat was suffocating.

“No,” Robert forced out. “Show me where you’re working now.”

“But that’s a ways further down, my lord,” said Charlie, doubt lacing his tone. “And it’s none too pleasant.”

“Lead on,” he said grimly while his gut tightened. Then, to distract himself, he began asking questions of Charlie. Mr. Hutchins didn’t have the breath to answer, but Charlie had a good head and full understanding of the work being done. Robert’s head was nearly bursting with information when they came to the newest cut.

Miners were there with pickaxes and shovels, all stooped over as they worked. Robert’s clothing was drenched in sweat, and his head was pounding from the noise and the thick air, yet he was still compelled to greet every man and compliment his work as any noble lord should. It was his responsibility, and so he did his best though inside he was screaming to leave. And then he asked a most terrible question.

“But,” said Robert, looking at the rickety wood supports in the tunnel, “can those possibly be safe? What if someone accidentally knocked it with a shovel? Or if a child drove a cart into it?”

“We take care not to,” answered Charlie. That wasn’t a terribly inspiring answer to Robert, who was lifting his candle to inspect the wood. To his eye, it was thin and worm-eaten.

“Keep that down!” rasped Mr. Hutchins in a gasping cry. “Do you want to kill us all?”

“There’s no firedamp here, sir,” said Charlie gently, as if he were talking to a child. “We bled off the gas just yesterday. That’s why we’s working here, if you recall. You wanted to tell his lordship about the fresh tunnel.”

“Yes, yes, but you can never be too careful,” said the manager. “Gas is the very plague down here, your lordship. And it hovers at the top of the cave.”

Which was why all the candles were set on the floor or in low crevices, Robert realized. “I’m not so worried about the gas right now as the wood. Where did you get it?”

“Got a right nice lot in a few months ago. Found it meself. Cheap and sturdy.”

Robert looked at the miners. None of them seemed to agree, but they didn’t speak up. Mr. Hutchins must have seen it or perhaps he was used to defending his purchases. Either way he wheezed his way over to the largest of the support beams.

“Sturdy, I tell you. It’s good wood!”

“But it’s too thin, sir,” inserted Charlie. “It don’t hold in place and it don’t hold strong.”

“’Course it does. You just have to make sure it’s seated right. Look here.” He squatted down and brushed at the base of the beam. “Seat it solid like this, and nothing will bring it down.”

Robert dutifully inspected the base of the beam. It certainly did look well braced to him, but what did he know? And how could one see by the light of a few paltry guttering candles?

“You’ve done a good job bracing it, Charlie,” he said as he inspected the smaller wood pieces that ringed the beam.

“Thank you, sir, but—”

“Don’t you worry, Charlie,” interrupted Mr. Hutchins. “This here is good wood and extra safe with those braces.” He pushed to his feet, or at least he tried to. But given his size, he had to grab hold of the wall to help himself. It would have been fine, but the wall crumbled a bit beneath his hand, and the falling rocks hit a candle, knocking it over. Mr. Hutchins, obviously fearing for his clothing, jumped backward. But he was not a man who could jump easily. He lost his footing and tripped over another rock. Which brought him right up against the support beam with all his terrible weight.

Robert sighed. All he saw was a fat man falling down. A man who ought to be able to maneuver better in the mine he supervised. But the mine workers understood more. They saw one of Mr. Hutchins’s feet knock aside two of the bracing wood pieces before his full body slammed hard against the beam. The wood slid out of its seating with a scrape that was almost inaudible. But the men heard it and were rushing up and out of the tunnel long before Robert realized the danger.

Only Charlie stayed behind, his arms reaching up to grab the beam before it toppled completely. Robert joined him a second later, but it was too late. They had no secure hold on the beam. The thing fell to the ground, bringing down another roof support that fell squarely on the toppled Mr. Hutchins’s legs.

That was when the dirt began to fall. Hard rocks, tiny pebbles, choking dust poured down. Something heavy slammed into Robert’s shoulder, but didn’t bring him down.

“Run!” he screamed at Charlie, but his voice was choked off by the dust. He could barely see. God only knew how some of the candles still burned in the thick air. Robert grabbed Charlie’s arm and hauled him past the growing pile of debris. Then he shoved Charlie up the tunnel before squatting down to help Mr. Hutchins, who was howling like the very devil.

Going completely by feel, Robert ran his hands over Mr. Hutchins. The man was half covered in dirt, but he could find no other obvious injury. Already the man was clawing his way backward, slowly pulling himself out from the pile of rocks. But he wasn’t working fast enough and would never get free in time.

Squatting down, Robert gripped the man beneath his armpits and hauled. Good God, the man must weigh fifteen stone! But he heaved. And Mr. Hutchins moved. And together, they worked him out enough that he could be dragged clear.

Charlie met them ten feet later, along with two other miners who waited beneath the more solid supports. With more hands to help, Mr. Hutchins was at last pulled to his feet. At least his screaming had stopped. The air was too thick with dust for anyone to speak.

Then they all stumbled, climbed, and hauled one another up the ladders to the blessedly clean air. Mr. Hutchins collapsed just outside the entrance. By his wheezing breath, Robert knew the man was still alive. And in the sunlight, he didn’t see any blood beyond the small cuts that they all sported. Probably bruised badly and would soon hurt like the very devil, but just in case, Robert performed the medical inspection he’d been taught.

He ran his hands over the man’s body, steadily, carefully probing for broken bones or unseen wounds. Nothing unexpected appeared.

“You’ll live, Mr. Hutchins,” he finally managed to push out through his raw throat. Then he turned to look at the other miners. “Anyone else hurt?”

“No, milord,” said Charlie. “Weren’t a real cave-in. Just a slide, like, and we’re all faster than him.”

“Good, good,” said Robert as he dropped to his knees. Bloody hell, he felt weaker than a kitten. “One more thing, Mr. Hutchins.”

“Yes, my lord?” the man wheezed.

“You’re fired.”

Helaine Talbott looked at the huge edifice before her and tried not to tremble. It was a wealthy home in an exclusive neighborhood. Five years ago, she would have sailed up the walkway, assured of her acceptance. But that was before her father had exposed himself as the Thief of the Ton. That was before his friends had cut him, his clubs had blackballed him, and he had disappeared to parts unknown. That was before his wife and daughter had sunk to the pits of penniless despair. And that was well before Helaine had discovered a strength inside her that defied even her father’s terrible blunders.

That was before, and this was now. She had to remind herself that she was not coming to this establishment as a petitioner. She was offering a business deal, straight and simple. With luck and a lot of charm, she would emerge victorious. She would have to, because failing today would mean the poorhouse tomorrow.

So she steeled her spine, went up the walkway, and took the knocker firmly, though she had to work around the faded black ribbon that signified mourning. Helaine was wearing her best gown, one appropriate to her former status. And when the door pulled open on well-oiled hinges, she gave the butler her most aloof smile.

“I am here to visit with Lady Irene. Just tell her I’m an old school friend, as she won’t know my current name.”

Such a cavalier attitude toward name would not be allowed in a pedigreed household. But this was a cit’s home, a family made wealthy through the shipping trade. Yes, Lady Irene had married down in title, but definitely up in wealth. As such, old friends from school would be rare indeed. Helaine had found that out herself when all of her childhood friends began giving her the cut direct.

“You have no card?” sneered the butler.

“Oh!” she gasped as she abruptly spun around. “My reticule!” Her reticule was safety settled on her dresser at home, but she pretended the height of despair. “I left it in the hackney! Oh, my! What am I to do now? I am visiting here and . . . oh, dear,” she moaned.

It worked. The butler sighed and gestured her inside. From there it was a simple matter to smile up at the lady of the household, who was just now descending the stairs. Her name was Mrs. Knopp, and she was Irene’s mother-in-law. She was also everything that the ton liked to decry as an encroaching cit. She was large and loud and much too wealthy.

Five years ago, Helaine would have noticed only that much and looked no deeper. But she was wiser now and took the time to see other small details about the woman. Her mourning dress was done in the most expensive fabric and style, so the household suffered no financial strain. But there was a great deal of strain in the lady’s eyes and her slightly forced gestures. Despite the woman’s bright smile, Helaine could see a sadness about her, as if a mantle of pain weighed her down.

It was grief, of course. The woman had lost her only son. Still, her voice was strong enough as she peered down at Helaine.

“Smithee! Who have we here?”

The butler responded in sneering tones. “She claims to be an old school friend of Lady Irene.”

“Really?” A gleam of interest sparked in Mrs. Knopp’s eyes. She rushed down the last few steps to Helaine’s side. “A school friend, you say? Oh, it shall be ever so excellent for Irene to see you. She has been so withdrawn. She needs an old friend to bring her out of her room, take her shopping and the like. Maybe to a party or two. It’s perfectly acceptable, you know, though she’s not out of mourning yet. But a party or something, one where her dearest mama could remain at her side.”

Irene’s “dearest mama” was Mrs. Knopp. Irene’s real mother had passed on more than a decade before. Obviously the cit had hopes that Irene would bring the family access to the upper echelons of the ton. And Irene’s father had resurrected the ancient practice of a bride price so that the earldom would be well compensated for Irene’s sacrifice in marrying down.

Helaine smiled as warmly as she dared without raising the lady’s hopes. “I don’t attend many parties these days, Mrs. Knopp, but I should dearly love to talk to Irene for a bit to see how she fares. We used to be good friends.”

Mrs. Knopp took the slight well, nodding as if she expected no less. “Well, I must say the visit is most excellent nonetheless. Smithee, go tell Irene she has a friend here and order tea. We shall settle in for a nice chat in the salon.”

“I am right here,” returned a quiet, delicate voice. It was Irene, gliding down the hallway from the back of the house. “There is no need—Helaine! Is that you?”

Helaine felt her breath release at the warmth in her friend’s voice. She had not been certain of her welcome. After all, Irene had merely married a cit. Helaine’s fall had been much, much deeper.

“Yes, Irene, it’s me. Will you let me sit with you for a while? I have missed our late-night whispers.”

Helaine saw it all flash through her friend’s expression. The memory of why they had stopped communicating. Of all that had passed in the intervening years. As girls they had bonded over poverty, both understanding the silent misery of having titled fathers who were perpetually broke. Helaine’s disgrace had come first, but Irene had been pulled from school soon afterward because her father couldn’t pay her tuition. And neither of them had seen each other since.

A million expressions flitted through Irene’s face, but none settled long. And then her once best friend sighed and looked at her hands. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to return to our beds back at school? To whisper about the new cook—”

“And her terrible cherry tarts!” Helaine felt a laugh bubble up from nowhere, free and lighthearted, as she hadn’t felt in so very long. “And how I shall never learn to darn socks!”

Irene smiled, bringing a softness to a face too harsh with angles. “You did have a terrible hand.”

“Still do, to tell the truth,” she said.

“And I still cannot manage to dress my hair in anything but a straight braid.” Irene gestured to the long thick cord of black hair that fell down her back.

They waited there a moment, both standing in the hallway staring at one another. Helaine had the impulse to hug her friend, and yet she didn’t dare. By society’s rules, that would be much too presumptuous. And Irene, too, looked uncomfortable.

It was Mrs. Knopp who rescued them, half escorting, half dragging Helaine into the front salon. “Come, come, we can’t be gadding about in the hallway. Come into the parlor. Smithee! Tea, right away. And do we have any tasty tarts for Irene’s dear friend?”

The butler bowed with a touch less doubt in his expression. “Right away, madam.” Then he departed while the three women settled in the opulent salon.

But then once again an awkward silence descended. Once, she and Irene could not stop talking to one another. But now, they both stared at their hands. Helaine felt most awkward of all because she could not broach her business proposal with Mrs. Knopp right there. But neither could she ask to take a tour about the gardens or whatnot. Not after tea and tarts had been summoned.

Again it was Mrs. Knopp who came to the rescue. She asked about their friendship at school, about the terrible tarts, and then—of course—about her family. Helaine answered truthfully, identifying her father as the Earl of Chelmorton. Nothing would come of hiding it, but then a miracle happened! Mrs. Knopp did not know of her father’s terrible crime. She did not speak to Helaine as if she were the daughter of the Thief of the Ton. She merely pressed to discover whether or not Helaine was married and if there was much good husband hunting in London now before the Season began.

It was all quite lovely, and so very normal as to be abnormal. She had not had a conversation like this in years and Irene was kind enough not to spoil it. But then the time for an afternoon visit passed. Half an hour. Forty-five minutes. Soon it would be an hour, and she could not stay longer. She had to speak to Irene alone.

She began with the most casual of inquiries. “You have such a lovely home. Does it have a back garden as well?”

“Oh, lawks, no,” squealed Mrs. Knopp. “I daresay that Irene misses the gardens and the dirt, but I can’t say as I do. I was born and grown in London. It’s the fresh air that makes me cough!”

“But there is a park,” said Irene in a quiet voice. It was disconcerting. As a girl, Irene could be amazingly shrill, but now she was beyond subdued. One might even suggest cowed. “I was thinking of going there just when you called. Should you like to join me?”

Helaine smiled her gratitude. Irene had always known just when Helaine wished to be private. “That would be lovely.”

Mrs. Knopp laughed too loudly. “I am afraid I will not join you on Irene’s constitutional. She looks frail, to be sure, but she has the devil’s own stride!”

It worked out better than expected. While Irene left to change her clothes, Helaine was able to get Mrs. Knopp talking about her husband’s business. As was true of many cits, she had a basic understanding of her husband’s line of work and was rather proud of him to boot. Helaine learned that the Knopp Family Shipping Company was extensive indeed. Better and better. And then Irene came back, they stepped outside, and suddenly everything changed.

Irene was sick. Helaine couldn’t be sure why she hadn’t seen it before. Perhaps it was because the lighting was never very bright inside London homes. But the moment they stepped outside into the brilliant sunshine, Helaine had to struggle to suppress her shock. Irene’s skin was so pale as to be virtually translucent. And she was so thin as to be gaunt.

“Oh, Irene, is Mrs. Knopp so very terrible? She seemed rather nice in a loud sort of way.”

Irene turned, her eyes widening in surprise. “What? Oh, no, she is quite sweet.”

“So you are happy living there?” That was a rather blunt way to put it, but the question needed to be asked. For a multitude of reasons.

Irene merely shrugged, her face averted as they wandered down the lane. “I suppose I am as happy here as I would be anywhere.” She paused and flashed Helaine a mischievous look that so resembled the girl she used to be. “And the food is much better than anything I had at home or at school.”

“But do you eat it?” The words were out before Helaine could stop herself.

“What?” Irene asked, her expression slipping back to vague. “Of course I eat.”

They turned a corner and, far ahead, Helaine could see the park. Despite what Mrs. Knopp had said earlier, Helaine wondered if Irene could make it so far a distance.

“Irene,” she said softly, putting a hand on her friend’s arm, “forgive me, but are you well?”

Irene slowed, obviously reluctantly. “I am tired all the time,” she finally confessed. “And I weep at the strangest things. A sound. A smell. I know it is grief. I know that it has become a danger to my health. I know it, and yet . . .” She shook her head. “I cannot seem to stop it.”

“Grief?” Helaine asked. “For your father?” Irene’s father had died a bit more than a year ago, but there hadn’t been much love between them. “Or perhaps you grieve what might have been,” she said, her thoughts turning to her own life. “I often wonder what would have become of me if my father hadn’t been . . . well, if he hadn’t been such an incredible idiot.”

Irene’s smile was wistful, but there was a tautness in her body that felt almost like anger. And her hands were clenched so tightly it was a wonder no bones broke.

“Irene?”

“I grieve for Jeremy,” she said, her words almost clipped. And right there, Helaine saw a flash of the girl who used to be. The one who would sometimes rant about injustice and the cruelty of having a father who lived solely to hunt and eat. “I grieve for my husband and the life we never had.”

“Oh!” cried Helaine, her face flooding with mortification. How ridiculous that she had never suspected such a thing. “But the nature of your engagement . . . the things that were said . . . I was well out of the social round by then, but even I heard.” She bit her lip, trying to stop the flood of words. “I beg your pardon, Irene. I cannot think how stupid I sound. Please, please, forgive me.”

Irene released a soft sigh, then began walking again toward the park. Her steps were fast, as if she were outrunning some demon, but then she tired and once again returned to a pace that Helaine could easily match.

“I know what was said about us,” Irene said. “How Papa made Jeremy pay a bride price for me. About how terrible he was to sell me to the highest bidder. It wasn’t true, you know. It was never true. But I let them say it because it was the only way Papa would let us marry.”

“You loved him!” The words came out as a kind of shocked exhale.

Irene lifted her face to the sun. “I was so angry, and he made me laugh. He called me beautiful and brought me treats.” She glanced at Helaine. “No one had ever brought me treats except for you and you were gone.”

Now it was Helaine’s turn to look away. The less said about her departure the better.

“Yes, I loved him. But he had to go on that damned boat. He had to prove himself a seaman and a captain.”

Helaine glanced at her friend’s face. “Was he very bad at it?”

“Oh, no. He was very good, but even a good man can die at sea. They said there were pirates, but Jeremy rallied the crew and fought them off. But he was wounded and grew ill. They even cut off his arm to try and save him, but it was too late.”

“Oh, my God,” Helaine whispered. “How horrible!”

“We learned of it ten months ago, but he was three months at sea before that. So a year has passed since I last saw him. A year since he held me in his arms. A year since . . .” Her voice broke and she rushed forward. They were near enough to the park now for her to reach a bench. Irene half stumbled, half collapsed onto the seat. But then she just sat there, her eyes gazing off at a nanny pushing a pram.

“Oh, Irene, was there a baby?”

She shook her head. “No child. And sometimes I wonder if that is a blessing. I do not know that I could care for a child.”

“Of course you could,” Helaine said firmly. “There is a strength that appears when one most needs it.”

Irene’s gaze shifted to Helaine. “Do you think so?”

“Of course I do.” It was a ridiculous discussion since there hadn’t been a babe. Still, Irene seemed to take comfort in it. Sadly, it put paid to any hope that Helaine had of success in her mission. She could not ask a grieving woman to set everything aside and . . . well, and become even lower than a woman who had married a cit for love.

So she sat there with her once best friend and looked at the nannies and their charges. They stayed there for nearly a half hour when Irene abruptly shook herself out of her reverie.

“Come now, out with it. What did you want to ask me?”

Helaine started guiltily. “I’m sorry?”

“Don’t try to hide, Helaine. You forget that I watched you hide that shrew Claudia’s socks. You didn’t come visit me on a whim. You have something to ask.”

Helaine lifted her shoulder in a shrug. “I came to make an offer to a desperate woman trapped in an unhappy home. I was wrong to assume such a thing, and I deeply apologize.”

“But you weren’t entirely wrong. I am unhappy. Just not for the reasons you assumed.”

“Either way—”

“Either way, you shall ask me what you came to ask. And then we shall see what is to be made of it.”

Helaine nodded. In truth, she had no other choice if she wanted to avoid the poorhouse. And yet it was so desperately hard to confess. How did one explain her choices to a woman who had fallen in love and married into wealth?

“Come, come, Helaine. It can’t be so hard. I already know about your father’s sins.”

“But not my own.”

Irene merely raised her eyebrows in query. In the end, Helaine gave in.

“Do you know what I became after my father died?”

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What I Love Most About 2020 – Lisa Harris

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SPECIAL FEATURE WHAT I LOVE MOST ABOUT 2020 WITH AUTHOR LISA HARRIS  Like most of you, I’m sure, I’ve been feeling as if I’ve been living...