“Oh, there you are, Lord Ridlington. I was beginning to think you had forgotten about our Saturday tradition. How are we ladies to occupy ourselves if you do not entertain us weekly with your tales? Come, sit, and Laura will pour you a cup of tea, won’t you Laura?”
Lord Hugh Ridlington bowed stiffly to the room of ladies, painfully aware of an unfamiliar addition to their normal company. He always made a habit of visiting his spinster neighbours, the kindly Judith and Laura Crampton. They had a niece in their care as well, Anna, who, though she was younger than her aunts, displayed the same disdain for the traditional life trajectory of a lady. None of the women, as far as Hugh was concerned, had ever entertained the idea of marriage themselves, yet tried their best to influence the romantic decisions of all those around them.
“Good afternoon, ladies. Apologies for my tardiness, but I had some unexpected business to attend to. I see that we have company,” he said, nodding towards the fourth woman in the large drawing room. Hugh did not think that he had ever seen her before and was glad for it. She looked like a terrifying woman, standing at just about five inches taller than he, and with a crown of frazzled red hair that she’d clearly tried, and failed, to tame. Hugh didn’t like to make a habit of judging others based on looks alone, but as a near-recluse himself, he liked to have some forewarning of unexpected company.
A sly smile crossed Judith Crampton’s face, and Hugh noticed her sharing a knowing glance with her sister Laura. He had a sneaking suspicion that the sisters had very much intended for him to meet their mystery guest.
“Have you never had the pleasure of meeting Lady Frederica Haddington? Well, what luck that you both should be here on this fine afternoon! What a happy coincidence! Frederica, this is our dear friend Lord Ridlington, but you may call him Hugh.” Laura took him by the arm and started leading him towards Frederica, who pursed her lips in what Hugh could only assume she thought to be a pleasant smile. It was not.
“Lady Haddington, I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance,” Hugh said politely enough, bowing to the frightening woman.
She stood and made a real performance of her curtsey. “The pleasure is all mine. I do apologize if I’ve overstayed my welcome. Judith did not mention to me that they were expecting company. I ought to be on my way.”
Hugh knew full well that she likely had had some warning about his impending visit. The Crampton sisters had been trying to find a potential bride for him for years, though Hugh continually insisted that they stop with their matchmaking. Apparently, he had not expressed himself clearly enough.
“Oh, no, no, don’t go so soon, Frederica! Hugh doesn’t mind if you stay, do you Hugh? We’ve been long-time neighbours and friends of the Ridlington family, of course, but sometimes I half believe that Hugh wouldn’t see anyone at all if we did not take it upon ourselves to introduce him into society,” Judith teased. Hugh smiled, though he was hardly amused.
“Please, Lady Ridlington, do not leave on my account. Miss Crampton speaks truthfully. I like to keep to myself, but it is good for me to socialize with others from time to time.” He wished he did not feel so obliged to be polite, but the gentleman he was raised to be would never tell a friend of a friend to leave for his benefit alone.
Hugh looked over to where Judith and Laura’s niece Anna sat alone, closest to the fire, with her pudgy fingers working quickly on her embroidery, and dark circles beneath her eyes that her aunts loved to fuss over. Anna rarely spoke at all, and when she did, it was usually to recite a bible verse. Even so, he thought to himself that he’d rather spend five hours alone with her than another minute with the simpering Lady Frederica Haddington.
He told himself he only needed to stay for a few minutes and tried to preemptively come up with an excuse to leave.
“Can it be that you are the neighbour I’ve heard so much about over the years? I’ve heard that the grounds at Penderton Manor are some of the finest in the country, but I confess, I know little of the man who makes it his home. Are your parents still alive?” Frederica’s needling questions vexed Hugh terribly, but he kept his face serene and answered as politely as possible.
“I’m afraid both my parents are no longer with us. They passed away several years ago in quick succession. I have taken up the mantle at Penderton ever since, and I enjoy the solitude of the country immensely. Of course, I’m very grateful to have such fine neighbours like the Cramptons.”
“Such a large estate, and yet you remain unmarried? I should think that your parents would have wanted you to secure an heir and keep the family line intact.” Frederica sipped her tea but kept her beady green eyes fixated on Hugh.
He looked away sharply and took a deep breath. If there was one matter which he wished to discuss even less than marriage, it was his parents and their desires. The Crampton sisters were well aware of this quirk in him, and he could see that they were wondering about how they might salvage the situation.
“I have no idea what my parents would have wanted for me. Though I am an only child, I received little attention from them. They had their own worries, and…conflicts to attend to. Since their passing, I’ve decided to run the estate as I see fit. My primary concern is the comfort of my tenants,” he said, barely able to keep the disdain out of his voice. The memory of his parent’s messy marriage was a painful one for him, and he wished to say no more on the subject.
“Lord Ridlington is one of the finest landlords in all the country. He has a real concern for those that live on his land, and I find it admirable. There are others who care only for taking the rent and raising it just as often as they can, but Hugh here pays close attention to the wellbeing of his tenants. Isn’t that right, Hugh?”
It was sweet of Laura to change the subject so deftly, but even so, Hugh was fed up with the conversation. The time had come to put his escape plan into action.
“I do my best. I hate to leave you ladies so soon after my arrival, but I’ve just remembered some business that requires attending to. Please forgive me, but I must be on my way. Lady Haddington, I’m so glad that we were able to meet.” He stood quickly and gave a curt bow to everyone in attendance.
“Oh, that is unfortunate. Of course, we understand. You are a man with many responsibilities. Let me walk out with you, as there is something I wish to discuss. You promised that you would recommend a gardener now that our dear Mr. Teller has passed on. Someone must attend to our hydrangeas, and I would very much like to arrange the gardens in a more continental style.”
Judith stood quickly and followed Hugh out of the drawing room, much to his own dismay.
Still, he remained civil, and said nothing as Judith slipped her hand around his arm. Once they were out of the drawing room, she clutched his wrist excitedly.
“What do you think of our dear friend Frederica? I know her red hair is something of a disaster, but she comes from a very good family. The Haddingtons have …”
Hugh could hold himself back no longer, and he interrupted Judith.
“I don’t mean to be rude, Judith, but you know my opinions on marriage. I told you long ago that I have no intention of marrying unless I…”
“I know, I know that you’ve said that, but you must understand that there are many women who are looking to you in hopes that you will change your mind. It is irresponsible of you to dash about so on your horse, your blonde hair so handsomely tangled, knowing that you have a great fortune that could be shared with just the right woman. It’s selfish, Hugh, and I won’t hear you say otherwise. Lady Haddington is a well-respected lady, and you ought to consider her more seriously. I worry about you, rattling about in that massive manor all by yourself. Such a house was meant to be shared and filled with the sound of children’s laughter.” The wrinkles above Judith’s eyebrows deepened as she spoke, and Hugh could tell that he was causing her great distress.
In some ways, the Cramptons had become the family he’d been deprived of. He appreciated her attention and care for him but was growing frustrated with her meddling ways.
“I know that you worry about me, Judith, and I am much obliged to you in that regard. I only ask that you respect my request to not bother me again on the subject of marriage. Lady Haddington seems like a fine woman…”
“She is a very accomplished singer and pianist I’ll have you know!” Judith interrupted.
“Well, I should love to hear her play sometime,” he added dismissively. “I maintain, however, that I am not in search of a wife, and I ask that you turn your matchmaking ways onto the next subject. Now, I really do have some business to attend to, so I must be on my way. I shall see you next Saturday afternoon, as always, though I hope that there will be no other young ladies in attendance.”
Judith pouted, but Hugh’s speech seemed to have silenced her somewhat.
“Very well, Lord Ridlington. If that is what you desire, I shall let the whole matter fall aside.” She smiled tersely at him, and Hugh left abruptly before she could say anything else.
It was only a short walk to his own estate, visible over the hill from the Crampton manor, but Hugh marched as quickly as possible, eager to return to his fortress of solitude. Not until he reached the edge of the Crampton property did he realize that he’d forgotten his gloves. With a sigh, he considered leaving them until the following week, but he knew that if he did not fetch them, Judith or Laura would come calling on him the next day. Eager to avoid further socialization, he turned on his heel and started briskly back to the Crampton estate.
“I shall fetch your gloves for you straight away, sir,” the butler said stiffly when Hugh returned to the spacious front hall. It wasn’t quite as grand as his own, but the Crampton sisters had been lucky to remain in the estate following their father’s passing. Their brother, Anna’s father, had taken up a house in London, and readily agreed to have his sisters keep the house in the country, along with a decent annual allowance. Most unmarried ladies their age found themselves at the mercy of distant family members, but the Crampton women had arranged their lives in just the way that suited them. Hugh merely wished to be allowed the same grace.
“Do you wish to wait in the drawing room with the ladies?” the butler asked, and Hugh quickly declined.
“No, no, I don’t want to bother them. I’ll just take my gloves and be on my way.” If he could get away without alerting the Cramptons to his return, the sooner he’d be able to be back at home in front of his own fire with a glass of brandy in hand.
“Very good, sir.”
Hugh paced quietly about the hallway after the butler left but stopped abruptly once he realized he could clearly hear the conversation of the women still in the drawing room. He didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but Frederica had a particularly booming voice and loud cackle.
“Do you really think he cares for me?” he heard her ask.
Judith’s voice responded. “I do, I really do. We’ve known Hugh Ridlington since he was a boy, and I’ve never seen him quite so distracted in the company of a lady. He was clearly agitated in your presence, which I believe is a sign that he admires you greatly yet is too shy to admit it. It is a very recognizable sign of growing affection.
Frederica sighed. “I can only hope so. He is so strikingly handsome, isn’t he? There’s a severity to his countenance that frightens me in the most delightful manner. I admire a serious man like that.”
“He is a thoughtful and determined man. Most admirable qualities, indeed,” Laura added.
“With my parents long gone, and no family to speak of, I’m afraid that my inheritance shall disappear quite quickly. I had hoped to be happily married with several children by now, but that is not how the world has seen fit to use me,” Frederica said sadly.
“Well, I have a feeling that Hugh will not be able to hang onto his bachelor status forever. The benefit of his relative solitude is that I can confirm there are no other ladies in competition. If you can break through his hard exterior, I believe that his heart can be yours,” Judith cooed.
Hugh shuddered. Laura began to say something that he couldn’t quite make out, thanks to the butler’s swift return.
“Your gloves, my Lord.”
Hugh left before the butler could say anything else. He fumed as he retraced his steps back to Penderton. Had Judith not understood a single word he’d said? It was irresponsible of her to give Frederica such false hope. As much as Hugh felt for the difficulty of Lady Haddington’s position in life, he resented the Cramptons for proposing that he could be the solution for all her troubles.
He was perfectly happy as he was, going about his daily business and enjoying all that his estate had to offer. The last thing he needed was the interference of his bored neighbours interrupting the peace he’d worked so hard to find.
“He’s so terribly handsome, Hester. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that such a man, unmarried and of good fortune, existed right under my nose. Well, Penderton manor is, of course, a half day’s ride away, but still.” Frederica sighed, and Hester took a step back to avoid catching any of her mistress’ foul breath.
She’d always gotten along with Lady Haddington, and knew how to stay on her good side, but Hester would hardly say that the two of them were fast friends. Most of their conversations occurred as they were just then, whilst Hester prepared her mistress’ wild tresses for the dinner hour. The young maid listened patiently as Frederica whined about this and that, and the lady of the house often confused that for real affection. In truth, Hester spent more time pitying Lady Haddington than anything else. Still, working as a lady’s maid in the Haddington house was steady, stable work, and Hester was grateful for that.
“He sounds like a real gentleman, my Lady. Do you think that he holds any affection for you?” Hester didn’t mean to think such cruel thoughts, but she knew that if this Lord Ridlington was just as handsome and wealthy as Frederica was letting on, then there was little to no chance that he would ever be interested in her far-less-than-handsome mistress.
“I am led to believe that there may be hope in that regard. The issue is that the circle of company that he keeps is quite small, so I may never hope to be invited to dinner or the like. From the sounds of it, he dines with the Cramptons weekly, and spends a good deal of time with his other neighbour, Lord Allen. I’m at a loss for how to manipulate another meeting.”
Hester braided her mistress’ hair patiently, doing what she could to bring some life into the dry, yet too brightly coloured locks.
“Why don’t you have your friends invite the two of you over for dinner in the coming weeks?” Hester suggested, but Frederica did nothing to acknowledge the idea.
“If only he had any intention of attending one of the many balls in the upcoming season. The truth is that he ought to be hosting a ball of his own. Frankly, it is selfish to deny the rest of us the beauty of an estate like Penderton. I’m told that his mother threw a great many balls when she was still alive, but they were always a source of great tension for his father.”
Keeping her thoughts to herself, Hester continued to listen as Frederica came up with more and more ludicrous plans to put herself in the path of Lord Ridlington. She considered arranging a carriage accident by his estate, and even tempting him with some kind of promise of a harvest festival for his tenants. None of her mistress’ ideas made much sense at all, but Hester hummed and hawed appropriately when she felt she needed to.
“Ah, Hester, you’ve done a marvellous job as usual. Thank you. Don’t I look like the most striking beauty you’ve ever laid eyes on?”
“Yes, Mistress. Never have I seen such a fine profile as yours,” Hester lied. Lady Haddington was one of the oddest-looking people she’d ever seen, but Hester wasn’t in the habit of needlessly insulting others. Frederica had lost much in the last few years, and it was good that she felt a healthy sense of confidence, even if she lacked an awareness of reality.
“You’d best be off to dinner,” Hester urged, though she knew there were no other guests waiting. Lady Haddington lived alone, with only her servants for company. Still, she maintained a large staff, and managed her household as if there were someone occupying every bedroom at all times. Everyone was well aware that Frederica wouldn’t be able to afford so many servants for much longer. A good marriage was her only hope at sustaining her extravagant lifestyle.
Frederica was halfway to the door before she turned around as if suddenly struck by a bolt of brilliance.
“Hester! I’ve got it. It’s only just occurred to me, but I know just how I might start to worm my way into Lord Ridlington’s affections.”
Hester sighed imperceptibly. She was very much looking forward to eating her own supper in the kitchens, and the longer her mistress dallied, the more the hunger gnawed at her stomach.
“How’s that, my Lady?”
“This may seem far-fetched to you, Hester, but trust me. I think this might just be the cleverest plan I’ve ever concocted. Penderton is a very fine manor, is it not?”
The young maid couldn’t quite tell where Frederica’s question was leading, so she answered slowly and carefully.
“Yes, I’ve heard that it’s the finest estate in the area.”
“That’s right. I believe it even has quarters reserved for the possibility of a royal visit. How would you like to get the chance to work in such a house yourself?”
Hester was speechless. She tripped over her words in an attempt to find the right response to such a confusing question.
“Of course, I should like to see an estate like Penderton, and, and to work in such a place would …”
“Your father is very ill, isn’t he?” Frederica asked as she sat down on the edge of her bed, and patted the spot beside her, gesturing for Hester to join her. The young maid gingerly sat herself down beside her mistress, highly suspicious of whatever Lady Haddington was up to.
“He is. He used to be a man of the law, but he took ill after my brother passed away five years ago. We were all hoping that he would be able to return to work eventually, but as it stands, it is my weekly pay alone that my family relies on.”
Frederica pouted in a manner that Hester could tell was disingenuous.
“Such a tragedy. I’m so sorry to hear that. I believe I have what could be a solution for your conundrum, however. I propose that you seek out employment at Penderton and find out whatever you can about Lord Ridlington that may be helpful to me. I’ll continue to pay your full salary, but you’ll be making whatever Penderton offers as well. This way you can bring even more wealth to your family, and you would also be doing me a very large favour.”
There were just about a thousand potential disastrous outcomes Hester could think of that might arise from such a silly plan. She wasn’t even sure where to start. The potential to double her salary was tempting, but she had little faith such an idea would even work.
“How…I mean to say, even if I could secure employment in such a fine manor, how would I be useful to you? I’m sure I would have little interaction with the master of the house.” Hester kept her tone light, not wanting to offend her mistress by pointing out all the pitfalls in her plan just yet.
“Any information might be useful to me. What does he like to eat, what is his daily schedule, who does he socialize with? I know how it is with you servants,” she said in a teasing tone. “You all gossip about your masters and mistresses as if we were meant for nothing more than your entertainment. If you befriend the housekeeper and your fellow servants, you’ll be able to get to the bottom of Lord Ridlington’s true desires in no time at all. Why, if you could simply tell me which parish he attends, I could put myself directly in his path! The possibilities are endless.”
“Perhaps, but we’re not even sure that Penderton is in need of a maid. I certainly wouldn’t be able to act as a lady’s maid, as there are no ladies who reside at Penderton.”
“I’m sure you could pose as a household servant while raising few suspicions. A girl as pretty as you is unlikely to be turned down wherever you seek employment. Besides, think of the money for your family!”
She really did think about it for a moment. Her family could indeed use the money. Hester thought of how far her family had fallen since her birth. She’d been raised in a beautiful cottage, received a good education, and had high hopes for a life as a governess. As soon as her brother had fallen ill, however, their position as a family had swiftly declined. Illness had haunted the Cookes ever since. Her brother had died, and her father had immediately become afflicted with the same mysterious ailment. Work had become untenable, and her mother had taken on the task of caring for her father full time. Ever since then, Hester had taken whatever job she could, without giving a single thought to how such work might reflect upon her station in life. Her reputation meant little to her when her father lay at home in such pain.
Frederica’s plan was a foolish one, but if it meant that Hester might help her parents and put a bit of money aside, it might be a risk worth taking.
“Well, I suppose that I might be able to …”
“I knew you would say yes! You’re such a loyal girl. That’s what I love about you most. Good. Alright, well I ought to go down to dinner, but first thing in the morning I want you to go to Penderton and see if you can appeal to the housekeeper to give you some work.”
Hester’s mistress threw her arms around the girl, and the young maid felt a twinge of pity for the lady. She was swiftly reducing her inheritance, careening towards poverty, yet she was still willing to do whatever she could to secure the husband she so desperately needed. There was no doubt that Hester was in more dire straits than Lady Haddington, yet her heart ached for the woman.
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The tempting Betty Harding, a simple country girl, is happily working as a maid for the glamorous Lady Pebbleton. All that changes when she is forced to take her mistress’s place at a masquerade ball and spy on London’s most enthralling bachelor, the Earl of Bembroke. When a single night of joy turns into a whirlwind romance with the Earl’s equally charming butler, Betty spends every moment longing to fulfil her enticing desire… However, is the sinful butler really who he claims to be? Or will Betty find herself in the middle of a notorious scandal, risking all she has ever worked for?
William Nightbridge, the Earl of Bembroke, is growing tired of what the world expects of him. Tired of society’s expectations, tired of flirtations that lead nowhere, and most of all, tired of his mother and aunt meddling in his affairs and trying to marry him off as quickly as possible. However, when he meets a seductive woman at a masquerade ball, who leaves him craving for more, he comes up with a mischievous plan, to switch identities with his butler. Will his plan to seduce the alluring beauty succeed or will he ruin his life forever by sabotaging his only chance at passionate love?
Without even realising it, the Earl and the maid’s innocent flirtation dangerously transforms into a risky ruse. Misunderstandings turn into wicked lies and they soon end up trapped in a life-threatening deception. Betty and William will soon be forced to choose… Will they risk their own lives for the sake of their lustful desires? Or will they drift apart forever in an attempt to save one another?
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