No Longer an Innocent Lady Preview

A Steamy Regency Romance

 

About the book


"You're all that's on my mind, day and night..."

Mary Babington has dreams of a bright future.

Born to serve her lady, she has three simple tasks: serve to the best of her ability, keep her sights high, and never, under any circumstances, allow herself to fall for a nobleman. Tasks that she fails the moment she meets the Duke her lady is going to marry.

Michael Comeford, the Duke of Estrow, has always wanted to marry for love. Under pressure to produce an heir, he hopes his decision to get tied to Lady Betsey will not backfire on him. When he meets her lady’s maid, it both does and doesn’t.

And even though the bells of marriage ring closer for Michael and Mary, there is one major problem: how is one to marry when the bride is suddenly gone?

Chapter One


"We must fight for our freedom and bathe the streets of England in blood to achieve it!"

Mary shuddered at the words. She had dark, curly hair with full lips, now pressed tightly together. She stood at the back of a dark, smoky room with a low, beamed ceiling. In front of her were a group of dark figures, men and women, all in the plain dress of farmers and laborers. In front of them, standing atop an upturned crate was the man who shouted of revolution. He was powerfully built with a burn scar across most of the left side of his face. His hair was missing on that side of his head too. He wore an old red army coat, a coarse linen shirt visible underneath. Spittle flew from his mouth as he spoke and his eyes were alight with the passion of his speech. Mary didn't know who he was and didn't care. She searched for another.

"For too long this country has been ruled by an elite who care nothing for the struggles of working men but seek to hold onto their power from your backs!" continued the man.

There was a ripple of shouted agreement. Several men raised their fists. The room was dimly lit by flickering candles and oil lamps. The shadows moved fluidly and the assembled people merged into a single amorphous shadow. Mary moved along the dark wall, weaving between men and women who were watching the speaker with rapt attention. Then she saw a familiar silhouette. He stood taller than anyone around him and, though he seemed to be listening with rapt attention, he wasn't joining in with the shouts and raising of fists. Mary hurried forward, jostling people and ignoring their looks. She grabbed the shoulder of the tall man.

"Octavius! Come away!" she shouted over the noise in the room, pulling insistently.

He looked around in surprise but followed. She took his hand firmly, drawing him toward the door. As he saw her intention, he stopped.

"I want to hear the rest!" he protested, having to shout over another wave of noise from the crowd.

Mary stepped close to him. They were alike except in height. Both had high cheekbones and dark eyes. "Listen to me, brother. This is a dangerous place to be. Do you think this kind of talk is lawful?"

"He has a right to speak."

"Not treason and sedition, he doesn't. And that's what they will call it. You know they will. And anyone who is here tonight will be hung along with him, or transported."

Octavius looked back toward the man on the makeshift stage. Mary put her hand on his cheek, turning his face to look at her. She stood six inches shorter than him but there was command in her eyes.

"And what do you think his Lordship will make of it? Those words won't put food in your belly, Octavius, or a roof over your head. I will not see you in the workhouse because you were caught in the wrong place at the worst possible time!"

There was fire in her voice and her eyes. She took a firm hold of Octavius’ hand and drew him toward the door again. No one else was paying them any attention. The speaker was building to another crescendo and the waves of approbation from the audience were reverberating from the walls. Octavius finally nodded, allowing his sister to pull him along after her. They left the room, hurrying out into a cobbled yard. Octavius pulled his hand free, striding across the yard to a broad brick archway.

Behind them the sounds of the meeting were muffled now by the door and thick walls of the building. A row of stables lined the opposite side of the yard, locked up for the night. A strong smell of horse manure filled the air. Mary muttered under her breath, picked up her skirts and ran to catch up with her brother. She caught up with him just before he reached the arch, again catching his arm and pulling with all her strength.

"You wanted to leave, so I'm leaving!" Octavius snapped.

"Lower your voice, you fool. Do you want everyone in the town to know you were here?" Mary retorted in a furious whisper. "Just wait for a moment."

She peered out into the street and hastily pulled back. She pressed her back to the wall, putting a hand to her mouth. Octavius frowned, his petulance vanishing as he read the alarm in Mary's posture.

"What is it?" He made to look out into the street but Mary reacted quickly.

"Militia. Someone has raised the county militia. They're coming this way. We can't be seen here!" Mary hissed.

Octavius froze. In the dark Mary couldn't read his expression but she could feel the sudden tension in his arm.

"There's an alley over there. It comes out on Rotten Row. If we reach the ford, we can lose ourselves in the woods." Mary said decisively.

Octavius followed as she dashed across the yard toward the narrow run between two buildings. She could hear the tramp of boots on cobbles behind them as the militia advanced. She had only seen them for a moment, the silhouette of tall black hats and shouldered muskets, a mounted man at their front. The room from which she had retrieved her younger brother was the backroom of an inn. She wondered if any of the patrons she had seen in the firelit common room at the front of the building was acting as a lookout.

"How did you even get in there, anyway?" Octavius asked as they hurried through the alley, shoulders brushing the rough brick to either side. The ground was soft beneath their feet and the air was filled with the worst of smells. Mary gritted her teeth, lifted her skirts higher and tried not to think about what she might be stepping in.

"Master Phelps knows me. I taught his two boys to read at Sunday school," she replied over her shoulder. "He knew what was going on in his own inn and eventually agreed to let me in to find you."

"He wasn't supposed to let anyone in."

"He has more sense than most of you." Mary grated.

From behind them came the sound of raised voices. A single, clear male voice was loudest, calling out orders in a clipped tone. Somewhere a door slammed, then came the sound of running feet. We have to get away from here! Mary had no illusions about the penalties that the local magistrates would enact on anyone believed to have been present at a seditious meeting. Guilt would be assumed and transportation the penalty, if they were lucky. If we can get across the river, we can make our way back to Manton Castle through the woods and be there before his Lordship is even aware we were gone, or any of the other staff for that matter.

A figure stepped into the mouth of the alley, blocking their escape. He held a musket.

"Stop there! Stop or I fire!"


Chapter Two


The figure backed away, stepping back out into the street. His face was shadowed by the hat he wore but Mary thought she recognized the voice.

"Come on out here!" he barked, gesturing with the musket.

Mary cautiously stepped out into the street. It was narrow and lined with the backs of buildings. A stream trickled along the gutter and dark mounds of discarded refuse was piled against the walls. It was little more than another alley, running from the High Street to the river on the outskirts of town. The militiaman was alone. Mary could sense Octavius close behind her and prayed that the headstrong youth wouldn't think of rushing the other man.

"I know you," Mary said. "I can't see your face but I do know you."

The militiaman shifted his feet, his hands flexing on his weapon as though suddenly sweaty. "Don't think so, Miss. I’m not from around here."

"But you've got Mantonshire in your voice," Mary persisted. "I'm good with voices. Give me a minute and I'll remember."

She was talking calmly, keeping her voice level and her body between Octavius and the militiaman, allowing no opportunity for any silly male posturing. I need to keep him talking, keep him from trying to put us under arrest.

"Look 'ere...," the militiaman started to reply and Mary had it.

"William Thatcher! Bill Thatcher's son from Warmley. It is, isn't it?" she said triumphantly. "Your mother was tended by Sister Lamont. I was with her, perhaps five years ago. I remember you. You were just a boy. I used to go along to help when she visited the sick. It’s Mary, Mary Babington."

"Don't tell him your name!" Octavius whispered.

Mary silenced him with a raised hand. She stepped closer to the armed man, peering up into his shadowed face.

"Do you remember me, William? Or Sister Lamont?"

She made out a youthful face, eyes darting and tongue licking his lips. "Yes, Miss." The musket was lowered. "I remember. Now, it don't change nothing..."

"How is your mother?" Mary asked.

William stepped away from her, looking up and down the street. He took off his hat, running a hand through his hair. Overhead, the moon shone through a break in the clouds. Mary stepped closer again, wanting the young man to see her as clearly as he could.

"She's well, thank you, Miss Babington. Aye, I remember you visiting us, and the Sister. Did well by my mam, she did. And didn't take a penny for it. But..."

"But?"

"I've got me orders, Miss."

"William. This is my brother. Neither of us is dangerous nor deserving of being locked up. We are going back to the Castle. Manton Castle. We are both in service there. No one knows we were here and no one has to know."

Indecision painted William's face. Mary sensed Octavius tensing behind her, readying himself to act. She reached back, seizing his arm and holding as tightly as she could. Don't move, you headstrong fool!

"For me mam, then. On you go. Get away from here and I haven't seen either of you," William said finally. He turned his back on them, hurrying back into the alleyway.

"Bless you, William." Mary said. Still holding Octavius' arm, she ran in the direction of the river.

***

Mary and Octavius flitted along the River Manse, the brick buildings of the town to their right and the dark water to their left. The hue and cry had been raised by the militia and flickering candlelight was showing in several windows, as sleeping townsfolk were wakened by the commotion. They moved in silence through the long grass that grew beside the river. More than once, Octavius tried to speak but Mary hushed him. Her heart raced, expecting pursuers to emerge from between the buildings at any moment, or for someone looking out of their window to see the two fugitives.

When the Manse began to curve away from the town, an expanse of grass opened up and the houses became more distant. This was common grazing land and empty at this time of night. Mary began to breathe more easily as the darkness swallowed them up. Not far ahead was the Drover's Ford, where they would cross the river and then follow the London Road for two miles. Manton Castle lay just off that road.

"Whatever were you thinking?" Mary demanded as they skipped across the ford, keeping to larger stones that rose above the shallow water.

"I just wanted to hear what they had to say," Octavius replied sullenly. "Thornley gave me a pamphlet someone had printed about the Chartists. I was interested."

"Chartists? Is that who they were? Sounded like dangerous nonsense to me."

"You should read the literature. It’s not like what you heard tonight. I think maybe those men were on the fringe of the movement. It’s about all men being given an equal vote, not just those who own property."

"Regardless, you took it from Thornley? Thornley of all people! Since when has he had a good word to say to you, Octavius? He hates you because His Lordship chose you to be his valet."

"I know that," Octavius shot back. "I thought perhaps he was trying to make amends. It wasn't my fault he got demoted. Maybe he finally realized."

There was a sullenness in his voice that Mary recognized. Octavius realized the mistake he had made and felt foolish. Mary could not shame him any worse than he was shaming himself.

"Yes, well. All’s well that ends well." Mary said, softening her tone. Octavius walked beside her along the road, head down and shoulders slumped. She leaned in, squeezing his arm. "We'll be back at the Castle in no time and before we're missed too. So no harm done. Though we should burn whatever Thornley gave you, I think."

Octavius' head came up sharply. "But why shouldn't all men have an equal say in how they're governed? Why should I be worth less than His Lordship? Just because he was born into a noble family and I'm the son of a farmhand. It’s so unfair."

"It’s the way of the world, 'Tavius," Mary told him. "It’s always been that way. Why, all of a sudden, does it bother you so much?"

Octavius shot her a look. The moon was hidden behind clouds, and in the darkness she couldn't read his expression.

"It’s all so easy for them," he muttered.

Mary frowned, waiting for more. But Octavius continued in silence. He had always been an impulsive boy, and since the death of their parents it had fallen to Mary to rein him in. It had seemed as though he was conquering his own headstrong nature, earning himself a position as valet and becoming almost indispensable to the Earl. But in the last few weeks it was almost as though his position in the household was beginning to chafe. He seemed dissatisfied with his lot. Mary didn't know why and it worried her.

The road was a pale strip of earth, dimly visible in the darkness. It was bordered by tall hedges to either side which screened meadows and fields from view. The way was level and the surface firm underfoot. Presently they came to a crossroads. To their right was a wooded hill, now all but invisible in the night. Cresting that hill and with a commanding view across the Manse River valley was the estate of the Earl of Manton and the home of Mary and Octavius Babington.

"I'm sorry, Mary," Octavius said, looking at her as they took the left turn.

She smiled, reaching for his hand and giving it a squeeze. "What else would I do with my night off, eh?" she laughed. "Other than chase after you and talk our way out of arrest by the county militia. Her Ladyship will have me telling this tale for days."

"You won't tell Bets...I mean, Her Ladyship!" Octavius said, alarmed.

"Don't worry, 'Tavius. She and I have a strong relationship, almost a friendship, you might say. We are closer than Lady and Lady's Maid. We can both trust her."

"I know that. But, I would just rather she didn't know," Octavius protested.

"Whyever not? You can't think she would think less of you. If anything, she will consider it a great adventure."

"Please, Mary."

There was a naked entreaty in his voice.

"Very well, Octavius. I won't tell her," Mary conceded.

She walked on, lost in thought. It bothered her that she couldn't puzzle out what was bothering him. She'd always been able to, even as children, growing up in the care of the Sisters of Our Lady of Lourdes in an orphanage. They presently passed through woods and came to a tall, stone wall. Octavius led the way along the wall, through the trees to a small, wooden door, almost completely hidden beneath ivy. With practiced ease, he reached through a hole where the wood had rotted and lifted the latch holding the door in place.

Mary followed him through the door into the grounds of Manse Castle. The house rose majestically before them. It was built of stone to resemble an old medieval fortress. Powerful buttresses flanked it and the rooftops were crenellated. Towers rose from the four corners of the house. An ornamental moat surrounded it, the house itself reached by means of a white gravel causeway. Behind the house, atop an ancient hillock, rose the skeletal ruins of the old castle. When the sun set the shadows of those ruins almost touched the house that had replaced it.

Since arriving at Manton Castle, Mary had always found those ruins to be brooding and eerie. As she hurried through the ornate gardens the ruins were lost in darkness but she felt as though they watched her. She focused her gaze on the house, recognizing the lighted windows of Lady Betsey's rooms, halfway up the nearest tower. A small wooden bridge allowed for access to the servants’ entrance, well out of sight of the main causeway. Octavius and Mary clattered across and then down a narrow stone stairway to the entrance to the kitchens. Mary hastily checked her dress and shoes for dirt or mud acquired on their journey. A white-tiled corridor led to the bustling kitchen, filled with warm, steamy air and cooking smells. As they entered the kitchen, a rotund woman with gray hair and a white apron, clutching a large wooden spoon, turned from a critical inspection of a soup pot.

"Ah, there you are, Mary child. You best hurry straight up with this tray for Her Ladyship. Something's up and she's not dined with the rest of the family, refused to take any food too. Don't know what's got her so upset but maybe you can persuade her to eat something."

One of the scullery maids picked up a tray, containing some bread, soup, cheese and ham, offering it to Mary.

"Of course, Mrs. Hopkins. I'll attend to her Ladyship immediately."

Mary shot a look at Octavius but he refused to meet her eye.


Chapter Three


Mary wanted to talk more to Octavius but he left the room, walking through a door into the small servants’ dining room. He took a seat at the table with a couple of the grooms. He grinned amiably as they greeted him, immediately joining in their conversation. It was a skill Octavius had and it made him popular among most of the household staff.

He caught Mary's eye briefly and she could see through the facade he had in place for the others. There was a tension around his eyes. But he had taken himself away and there was no opportunity for more talk. Besides, duty called. Mary left the kitchen by another door, following more tiled, narrow corridors and then climbing a stone staircase that ascended in a tight spiral. It would carry her up to the third floor from where she could ascend to the southwest tower, in which Lady Betsey had her rooms.

On the third floor she crossed plush carpets toward the tower. Behind her, at the opposite end of the house a wash of laughter came from His Lordship's study. He was entertaining, though no guests had been expected. Mary wondered who had come calling at this time of the evening and without invitation as she opened the door leading to Lady Betsey's tower.

She balanced the tray expertly in one hand as she turned the handle, ascending carpeted stairs. The walls were bare stone, but almost every inch was covered with paintings and drawings of flowers, plants and animals. She knocked at the door to Lady Betsey's bedchamber, waiting to hear her mistress’ voice before entering. The room beyond was circular, a fire burning merrily in a marble fireplace. The walls were papered in blue and white with an elaborate design that Mary now knew to be Chinese in origin.

An easel stood before the fire, a half-finished canvas attached to it. Lady Betsey sat in a window seat, looking out into the night. Her hair was long and golden, eyes blue and skin pale. She had an oval face with round cheeks and a slightly upturned nose.

"Mrs. Hopkins thought you should have the opportunity to eat, Your Ladyship," Mary announced as she entered the room.

"Hello Mary, put the tray down. I have no appetite. How was your evening off?" Lady Betsey's voice was listless, lacking emotion.

Mary took the tray over to the window seat, placing it on the seat next to Lady Betsey.

"Very...well. Thank you for agreeing on such short notice," Mary said.

Lady Betsey looked at her, frowning. "Very...well? What did you get up to?"

Mary found herself bustling about the room, clearing away discarded brushes and pastels left out by Lady Betsey.

"Mary, come and sit down, please. I know when you are avoiding an answer," Lady Betsey commanded.

Mary stopped, hands full of a sheaf of papers that Lady Betsey had been using for sketching. They had formed a drift across the floor beside the easel.

"It's just that I promised Octavius… He seemed concerned that you should not know of our...escapade."

A light came into Lady Betsey's eyes, the first emotion she had shown. "Escapade? How intriguing! Well, now you must tell me, Mary. I swear I will not let on that I know."

Mary sighed. "Yes, Your Ladyship..."

Lady Betsey raised a hand. "Mary, we are alone and, frankly, I am tired of being the Lady of the manor. This is one of those times when we are Mary and Betsey, old friends, not Lady and Lady's Maid. Agreed?"

Mary couldn't help but smile at the irony of being ordered to treat Lady Betsey as her equal. But she also loved her for it.

"Thank you, Betsey. I do not think I would get much sleep tonight if I couldn't talk to someone."

Lady Betsey patted the window seat opposite her. "And I would simply go mad if I didn't have you as my confidante, Mary. I thank God every day that you came along. Now, tell all."

Mary sat. Lady Betsey took up a cheese knife, dividing up the cheese and ham into two and offering half to Mary. She took the food gratefully, having skipped dinner to go chasing after Octavius. She told Lady Betsey of finding a note from Octavius that he was planning to attend a secret meeting in the town of the Chartist movement. Octavius had been granted a few hours off by His Lordship, as a reward for hard work that Octavius had put in helping reorganize His Lordship's extensive library. Mary had gone to bring him back, fearing for his position or even his life if he were caught.

Lady Betsey gasped at the description of the meeting and the subsequent raid by county militia.

"I do believe a major of the militia is currently with papa in his study. He arrived after dinner. Major Bettany, I believe his name is."

Mary almost choked on a piece of cheese. "Did he say why he had come here so late?" she asked, anxiously.

"Just that he had men out on patrol in the area and was paying papa a courtesy visit," Lady Betsey said. "I don't think he was looking for anyone. If he had been, I'm sure papa would have sent for me."

Mary breathed a sigh of relief and Lady Betsey smiled comfortingly. "I don't think you need worry. Octavius is safe," she paused. "How is he?"

"Pensive. I hope it is merely the fright of coming so close to being arrested. But..." Mary trailed off, looking inward. "I don't know. He can be impulsive but it is as though in the last couple of weeks something has been...well, gnawing away at him. I can't think what."

She noticed that Lady Betsey had not touched her own share of the food. "But enough of my brother. What is the matter, Betsey? Are you quite well?"

Lady Betsey flung herself back in her seat, resting her head against the wall and tracing her fingers over the glass of the window. "I should be. I think I am just being childish and selfish."

"Neither are words I would use to describe you," Mary said.

"Papa told me that he has approached the Duke of Estrow on the subject of a potential union between our two families." Lady Betsey said, her voice desperate with sadness.

"The Duke of Estrow? Is he not a good man?" Mary asked.

The thought of an arranged marriage did not appeal to her but it seemed part and parcel of life in the aristocracy.

"I do not care if he is a good man or not!" Lady Betsey retorted. "I do not wish to marry him or even meet him!"

The fire of her response took Mary aback. She leaned forward, taking Lady Betsey's hands in her own. "Have you discussed this with His Lordship?" she asked gently.

"No. Papa has been gushing in his praise of the Duke. Apparently the Estrow fortune is extensive. Papa cannot see further than the wealth and status he would accrue."

"And there is no way that this man can make you happy? Perhaps, if you get to know him?" Mary suggested.

Lady Betsey jumped to her feet, upsetting the tray and sending the food to the floor. She paced across the room, hugging herself tightly. "I will get the chance. He has consented to visit with us next week."

Mary thought hard about how to offer comfort. She was a practical person, always focusing on solutions to her problems. She applied herself now. "Well then, if he is coming here and it can't be helped, perhaps he will turn out to be charming, handsome and you will fall in love."

"I don't want to fall in love with someone...like him." Lady Betsey replied.

Mary sensed that she had been about to say something else, stopping herself at the last minute. But what? Was she about to say someone else? Don't want to fall in love with someone else. But that would mean...the realization hit her.

"There is another?" she asked.

Lady Betsey nodded, retaking her seat, the fire gone. There were tears in her eyes. "But it cannot be," she whispered. "It can never be and it makes me want to die."

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Tags


  • This story presents a challenge for the sister to keep her brother safe from a wrong decision in his actions. She is also trying to present a positive view to the possibility of marriage for her mistress. What more will happen in the rest of the story?

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