About the book
“What is it that you’re doing to me, my sinful Lord?”
Beatrice March will do anything and everything to protect her family.
As a commoner, her voice matters to no one, let alone royalty. But when she finds the courage to send a letter to an enigmatic Earl, her quiet life is suddenly overtaken by temptation and danger.
Ernest Comerford, Earl of Hollywave, is a scarred man; physically and mentally. After his brother was kidnapped at a young age, he has made it his life’s mission to find him. A mission that has been met with nothing but failure. Until the day he receives a charming letter from a peculiar lady.
Determined not to let any distractions deter him from his cause, Ernest pushes Beatrice away. A feat that proves impossible, as she holds not only the key to his heart but also to the one thing he’s been craving for years. But the truth comes with a price, and when the time to collect it descends upon them, Ernest must make a terrifying choice: Beatrice’s life for his long lost brother...
1816, Hollywave Earldom, Village Hayton
Thirteen-year-old Beatrice March watched her sister, Anna, eat the last slice of the bread and cheese with a tired smile on her face. She felt grimy, and her thin blond hair needed a wash, but at least tonight, her sister would not go to bed hungry.
“This is so good,” Anna said between bites. “Aren’t you going to have any?”
“I told you, Anna, I already had some,” Beatrice lied. She ignored the rumblings in her belly as she knew she could withstand hunger better than her sister. If they had enough to share, they would both eat, but if there was only one portion, she always gave it to Anna.
The work she got on the neighbor's farm, milking cows and tending to chickens, gained her enough coin or bread to feed herself and her sister. But the old milk cows had been butchered three days ago, and instead of getting coin, they had given her a half-a-loaf of bread and squares of hard cheese.
She’d had enough food to last them for a few days, but that day, it had run out. In the small farming village, Beatrice was running out of options to provide for her sister.
Beatrice stood and went to the window of the tiny cottage they lived in with worry about the rain that was brewing on the horizon. The cottage was in a dilapidated condition, the thatch roof was thin, and the walls were being eaten away by time and pests. There was not a day she didn’t worry that the house would collapse around them, leaving them homeless and hopeless.
And now, a storm was rolling in. There was some firewood in the central firepit, but it was only for boiling water. It was not enough to keep them warm through the night.
“Beatrice,” Anna came to her side, her brown eyes, staring out into the scrubby land before them, “Is it going to rain?”
“Looks so,” Beatrice laid a hand on her sister's shoulder.
At nine, Anna’s growth had been stunted because of the poor food they ate. In the summertime, when Beatrice was able to grow carrots, cabbage, and potatoes in the plot of ground behind their hut, they went on well, but now that it was heading to winter, the land had gotten hard and stony. Nothing was growing, and they hardly ate good food.
Beatrice pulled away from the window and ushered Anna back to the middle of the room. “We have a little milk left; do you want it now?”
Anna blinked, “Can we share it?”
“Yes.” Touched by her sister’s care, Beatrice said, “We can share it.”
Beatrice got the old copper pot, the very same their mother had used, and poured out the milk into the pan from the old water skin. Using the old strike irons their father had made years ago, she got a fire in the pit. Beatrice then placed the pot on a spit of iron over the pit and joined Anna on the mound of threadbare blankets that they called a bed.
Wrapping an arm around her sister’s slim shoulders, careful not to poke holes in the thin smock her sister was wearing, Beatrice pulled her sister into her side and kissed her forehead.
“Want me to tell you a story?” Beatrice offered, as the faint rumbles of thunder were in the air.
“Yes, please,” Anna said, happily.
Smiling, Beatrice started to spin a tale about an older woman named Ava, who had no children or husband, who, while going to a water well, met a trapped fairy. After freeing the fairy, the fairy asked the woman what her deepest wish was.
“The old woman said she wanted to be young, to turn back time so she could find love, and take the chance she once had but lost it,” Beatrice said as she stood to pour the milk into the old cracked pewter cups they had, and handed Anna one.
“The fairy granted the woman her wish, and she became young again. She traveled to the city and found the castle there, where the Prince was seeking a bride. She gained work as a maid in the castle, and was made attendant.”
Rain began to fall, a gentle sprinkle, but eventually, it grew harder. The sky grew dark, and lightning carved through the sky with jagged forks. Thunder rumbled hard enough that the walls shook and huddled into the corner with her sister, Beatrice held Anna close.
“There were three potential brides for the Prince, and all of them were beautiful. The best women in all the land.”
As the thunder grew harder and rain pelted the cottage, the drops pierced through the thin thatch and began to make puddles on the packed dirt floor. Keeping Anna’s attention away from what was happening around them, Beatrice talked about how the three women tried to deceive the Prince and how Ava was the one who found them out.
“The Prince realized that Ava had more truthfulness than the princesses and married her,” Beatrice said, lost in the fantasy she had made.
When she pulled herself out of it, she realized Anna had fallen asleep on her shoulder. Resting her head on the wall behind her, Beatrice swallowed over the gnawing pain in her belly. Denying herself for her sister was second nature to her, but the strain of it was hard on her.
Their parents had left her with a hard burden, and at her lowest times, she felt it was not fair. She should have gone to the village school like the others to learn how to read. She only knew her letters, but could hardly put them together even at her age. Her sister Anna had not had a chance to learn anything at all. It wasn’t fair, and Beatrice felt despair begin to leaden her chest.
As the rain pounded, the cottage went pitch black, with only the embers of the fire pinpoints of lights in the darkness. The wind was howling like a raging beast, and she held Anna closer. Taking a blanket, she wrapped it close around her and Anna’s shivering body, trying to trap the little heat they had between them.
The storm raged, and though tempted, Beatrice did not have the luxury of going to sleep. She had to keep watch. There were times were rodents would crawl in the dark, but now, with the storm raging, water could flood the home. They had few belongings, so it wouldn’t be too hard to grab the spare smock Anna had and the blankets they used for everything and leave.
But, to where?
They didn’t have relatives or family friends. The village was small, and all the villagers were struggling themselves. A few years ago, the church had been rebuilt, but that was the majority of the changes that had happened in the town. They had a traveling pastor who came once every month, so there was not a steady cleric presence in the village. They couldn’t even go to the church as there was no one there to help, like it did in other parishes, and the schoolhouse was abandoned when Beatrice was five.
Beatrice kept her eyes opened, while Anna slept. The storm arrived with a vengeance. The wind wailed and howled, rattling the window in its wooden frame, and rain battered the roof, but the drops weren’t dripping through the ceiling anymore.
Hours passed and the night dragged on until sometime around dawn, the rain began to lessen, and Beatrice was able to drift off. But then, an ominous creek had her eyes shooting open, just before a section of the roof, a foot away from the firepit, snapped and crashed down on the ground.
Anna jerked away, with a scream, but Beatrice held her and calmed her. Anna was trembling like a leaf, and Beatrice looked up at the hole with panic. It was wide and still cracking at the edges. There was no way she could fix it, or pay anyone to do it. Mayhap a kind neighbor, would help them, but Beatrice felt more doubt about that.
“Beatrice,” Anna whispered while pointing to the mess of board and wet thatch on the ground. “What are we going to do about that?”
“I’ll try to get help, Anna,” Beatrice swallowed. “I don’t know if I’ll get it, but I’ll try.”
The sun rose, and as the day got clearer, Beatrice saw the full damage and felt more apprehension that it could not be fixed. She left Anna in the driest part of the cottage and went to her closest neighbors, only to see them sweeping up debris from their broken houses as well.
Beatrice’s stomach sunk to her feet the farther she walked. Most of the houses were damaged, and one had a whole wall torn off. She knew, right then, that no help would be coming, but asked anyway. And her suspicions were right — no one had it in them to help.
Tired, disheartened, and despairing, Beatrice went back home to find Anna making a pyramid with rocks. Beatrice knew there was no hope with the cottage, it was already crumbling around them, and soon it would be gone entirely. There was no work for her, and she had no way of providing for both of them — they had to leave.
Beatrice crouched and hugged her sister, with tears in her eyes, “Anna, we have to leave. There is nothing here for us anymore. No one can help us, as their houses are broken too.”
Anna’s eyes dipped, and her voice as still as she dropped the last pebble on the mount. “Where will we go?”
“I don’t know, Anna, but I know we can’t stay here anymore.”,” Beatrice said as her eyes flitted to the open door and the lands beyond it, “
“The next village,” Beatrice decided as she moved to the old trunks at the side of the cottage. Inside them were some of their mother’s old things, and an old coat that Beatrice took out.
She then used a knife to cut the long coat to fit Anna’s small frame and wrapped it around her sister, using a strip of the cloth she had torn off to make a belt. Anna had a pair of slippers that she used to go to church, and thankfully, they still fit. She had Anna put those on as well.
Her dress was thin, but the apron she used at that farm was thick enough for her wear as well. Her boots, ones generously given to her by the farm lady she worked for, were hardy enough for her to use.
Beatrice used an old blanket to make a bag and stuffed it with their other clothes and blankets and a knife. That was all they had of worth, and Beatrice mourned that she couldn’t give her sister something to fill her stomach with.
Mayhap we’ll find some fruits along the way.
She hefted the pack, and with Anna’s hand in her, they left the broken home and took the trails to the next village. They walked a slow mile into the forest before she spotted some low hanging fruit that she picked and peeled for herself and Anna. They rested a little before starting again, and got to the village with a few more stops to rest.
The first place Beatrice headed for was the church. The stone church was much larger than the ones they had in the Hayton village, and thankfully, the doors were open. Beatrice helped Anna into the church and saw two women cleaning the pews. One of them looked up and gasped, dropping her cloth.
“Savior above,” the woman said, meandering her way through the wooden pews to them. “Little urchins, where did you come from?”
“Village Hayton, Miss,” Beatrice said quietly, “My name is Beatrice. My sister Anna and I lost our parents years ago. Our home got damaged in the storm, and we have nowhere else to go.” Anna was huddling into Beatrice’s side, hiding her face in Beatrice’s side. “We ran out of food a day ago.”
“Oh, dear hearts,” the woman said, “We can give you some food, but there is nowhere you can stay.”
Beatrice felt worry cloud her mind, and she nearly capsized on her weary feet, “Then… where can we go?”
The other woman, and an older lady, came closer and took a seat. There were lines in her face, but her blue eyes were bright. Her gaze was searching but compassionate, “There might be a place—”
Thirteen Years Later, Hollywave Manor, August 29, 1829
“Shall I open a window, My Lord?”
Ernest Comerford, the young Earl of Hollywave, flickered a look at the thick velvet drapes, covering the large bow windows, shadowing his bedchamber in a dim haze. When was the last time he had seen sunlight? Was it even necessary anymore?
“No, Stetson,” Ernest said to his butler, a man that had been his father’s manservant before him, as he swung his legs from under the covers. “It's fine.”
At least this way, Ernest wouldn’t have to look at the horrid scars on his left arm and leg. His sleeping pants and shirt had long legs and arms and kept the puckered, ridged skin from his sight. The healed burns were so hideous, that he was sure no woman would ever want to marry him. The lone mercy was that his face hadn’t been scarred.
Stetson left the room to give Ernest his privacy. Reaching for his banyan, Ernest shoved his arms in and stood, tying it off around his waist. He went to wash his face, knowing that soon his copper tub would be filled, and he would have to look at those memories of twenty-two years ago.
It pained him to recall the pain he had suffered, while trying to save his brother from abduction. Not for the pain he had suffered, but that he had to watch the men shove a gunny sack over his brother Luther’s head as they carted him away.
He left the annex room to where his table was set with a cup of coffee and took his seat. It was strong, black, and bitter, much like everything else in his life. He had no close friends, only those who he wrote to a few times a year — instead, he had dogs, two solemn Great Danes, Beowulf and Caspian, with their old-man faces, and cheerful dispositions.
One of them — Beowulf, came snuffling at his knee and Ernest rubbed his pet’s ears. “Down, boy.”
The dog dropped to his haunches.
Half of his house had been closed off, the main dining room with the large fireplace must have cobwebs as thick as sheets for as long as it had been shuttered, just as his brother Luther’s room, had been closed.
The rooms his father had used when he was alive were boarded up as well, leaving only his room, a drawing room, salon, library, and the kitchen open. There were a few guest rooms available, but they might have been closed off as well as he had no visitors.
As for wait staff, Ernest had dismissed most of the servants who had served his father, leaving Stetson, the cook, a pair of footmen, a stable hand and a maid. He made sure Stetson stayed because his butler had cared more about him than his father had.
On those nights, he had been sent to bed without supper — for the slightest error — Stetson, in the middle of the night, would come to him with a cup of warm porridge, bread and a caring smile.
At two-and-thirty, Ernest knew that he was living a half-life, with little prospect of marriage or having children. The Earldom would probably go extinct, after he died, and all his wealth given over to charity. That was, if he didn’t find Luther.
“My Lord,” Stetson said as he came in with a letter on a silver platter, “this came for you.”
Ernest frowned, “Is it a creditor?”
“No, My Lord,” Stetson replied, “I believe it’s from the orphanage we sponsor.”
Mildly taken aback, Ernest plucked the letter from the plate and looked over it. “Braised liver and sausage for breakfast, Stetson.”
Dropping the letter to the table, Ernest wondered if it made sense to throw it out—but then, rarely had he received a letter from the orphanage. Only twice did he remember getting a letter, and it was to inform him that a child had been adopted, and another that a child had died.
Is this the former, or the latter?
After finishing the cup of coffee, he sighed and plucked the letter up, breaking the seal. The letters were written perfectly, but as he read, it was the tone that had him sitting back, appalled. Whoever had written this, had little care or respect for dignity.
Dear Lord Hollywave,
We, the faithful operators of your esteemed orphanage would like to inform you, that in the last seven months of operation, your head instructor has used a cane on five children, breaking an arm on one child, and bloodying another. Only yesterday, another child was sent off to the sick room for pilfering a square of sugar. We have little medicine, no bandages, and I fear our nurse is not qualified to be a nurse.
The meals are burned, and the dorm rooms are fit for animals. There are no books, the slates are broken, and pencils are replaced with sharpened sticks. No clothes are provided for them, as the cloth allowance has disappeared, and no seamstress has received an ell of cloth for them, from the start of the year.
The two classrooms have two desks apiece for fifteen children, seven who are under the age of ten, and eight who are older. We have to rotate them each day to give them the ‘privilege’ of sitting on a desk. In one year of tutelage, of the fifteen children, only five can read, and three can write.
I would hate to accuse you of dishonesty as there are rumors of your generosity, but somewhere along the line of custody, the money is gone. I appeal to you that you investigate this matter as soon as possible, and take the steps needed to correct these mistakes for the sake of these poor children.
Ernest dropped the letter — stunned. He could feel irritation and frustration bleeding from the words, but he was aghast at how this woman could write such a letter. He felt as if she was jabbing him with knives. She had stated that she was not accusing him of being stingy, but it felt that she was.
Such impudence. This Beatrice is probably a harridan.
Unsure of how to respond — or, if he should respond at all — Ernest refolded the letter and set it aside. He finished the coffee in the dim room and left for his study. In his desk were money orders given to the Headmaster of the orphanage that was marked ‘filled’.
The eight-hundred pounds he had given to the school for meals, learning supplies, and clothes had been taken, but now, this Beatrice March was reporting to him that nothing was being done. If any of this was true, instead of just sending more money, he had to see for himself.
But that was after he attended to his more critical matter. The investigator he had hired for over ten years now to track down his brother Luther had vowed to see him that day. Luther had been kidnapped that day, twenty-two years ago, and seemed to disappear from the face of the earth.
Luther’s mother, Ernest’s step-mother, had passed away after he had been born, and he had grown under the governance of Stetson, at holiday times away from Eton. At nineteen, Ernest had petitioned the bank and gained access to his wealth so he could contact an investigator to find his brother, as he could — and would never accept that the boy was dead.
In London, the head of a band of pickpockets, remember having a boy with Luther’s description in his gang. I’ll see what I can find.
Ernest stared at the note until his eyes watered, before he pressed his hand to his eyes. He hated this feeling, of heightened hope in his chest, only to have it crushed into dust, but it was unavoidable as he kept sending out searches for his brother.
Miss March’s letter was disconcerting, but finding his brother was more important. He set aside the money orders to see about later on, but left to his chambers to take his bath. Studiously, he turned his eyes from the welts on his skin and finished washing, then dressed.
All his clothes were buff trousers and long-sleeved shirts, as breeches and pantaloons were too close fitting, and irritated his skin. Moreover, he thought he looked foolish in them anyway.
He finished his meal and then went to the study again. Luther’s file was a thick as a brick. During the years and the many leads his investigator had dug up, with so-called sightings from as far as Gretna at the border, to as close as Whitechapel in London.
He paged through the old letters and sightings, and skipped over the months of no records, to the last one he had received yesterday. Luther should be twenty-nine, going on thirty in the next three months. Ernest’s dearest hope was that his brother was alive. That, somehow, he had survived his horrible capture and found a peaceful life, as Ernest’s life was still mired in torment.
He cast an eye behind him to where an old portrait of his father rested. There was not a day that passed where Ernest did not clench down on the urge to grab a knife and slash it through — but his late father’s face was a constant reminder for Ernest to not be as a hateful, taxing and demeaning as the older man had been. The cold look in his father’s painted ice-blue eyes showed how wicked he was — thank God he was dead.
A knock drew his attention to the door.
“My Lord,” Stetson said from the doorway. “Investigator Rutherford’s carriage has arrived. Would you like refreshments sent up when I send him in?”
“Perhaps some brandy,” Ernest replied, trying to tamp down on his lurching heart. “Thank you.”
After a moment, Ernest got up and tugged the curtains open a little. A light flickered into the room, and Ernest flinched a little. He retreated to his chair and settled into it. He raked a hand through his hair, noting that it was getting longer, the ink-black strands were brushing his collarbones.
But he didn’t care, just as he didn’t care that his pale complexion made him look like a specter. He was not fated to marry; his fate was to live alone and die alone — and Ernest had accepted that a long time ago.
“Lord Hollywave,” came the gruff voice of Inspector Rutherford, a half-Scottish man, robust and sturdy as a lad, he’d grown with English sensibilities. “Glad to see you in good health.”
Ernest’s lips twitched, as he knew that his pale face was certainly not the appearance of health. “Good to see you too, Rutherford. What do you have for me?”
While Rutherford took a seat, Stetson put the tray of a glass bottle of brandy and two snifters on the table between them and dipped his head. “My Lord, Mister Rutherford.”
“Shall I do the honors?” the inspector asked.
Ernest waved his permission, and as the door closed, Rutherford reached over and uncapped the bottle. Pouring the liquor into the glasses, Rutherford said, “After months of nothing, I tracked down an old thief who used to handle pickpockets and mud larks in London. He said a boy came to him twenty years ago, with the same look as your brother, short sandy hair, blue eyes with a scar on his temple. He ran off after a year of working for him, but was one of the best scavengers he had.”
Ernest’s lips thinned, “That was twenty years ago. You’ve had leads about him being fifteen, and older. How is this significant?”
“Because, the cove said that he had eyes on past workers of his and one of them who had gone on to be a navy, said the same boy, now a man was with them,” Rutherford said, making Ernest’s heart leap. “That ship, HMS Ulysses, was retired two years ago. I plan to trace that sailor’s steps. With any luck, he’ll be our man.”
Hope sprang up again in Ernest’s chest, as he reached for his glass to wet his throat. “I hope so too. I cannot accept that he's dead, Rutherford. Years ago, you said that children like him who are sold off to gangs or workhouses, rarely escape. But, Luther was — is — a fighter. He would never give up easily.”
“I hope he hasn’t,” Rutherford finished his glass and stood, “I could have sent word by letter, but wanted to tell you in person. I’m going to find your brother, Lord Hollywave.”
“And you have my sincere thanks,” Ernest said as he stood as well. “I shall see you out.”
“Thank you, but that’s not necessary, Lord Hollywave,” Rutherford waved Ernest away, “I’ll see myself out.”
Ernest offered his hand that the man shook, and then, the inspector was out the door. Ernest slowly sank back to his seat and let out a sigh of relief. It made sense that Luther had gone to the navy as it would have taken him far from being recaptured and sent back to do thieves work. Now that he was older, God knew what they would have forced him to do.
Shifting the folder of his brother to the side, Ernest took up Miss March’s — the harridan — letter and looked over it with hooded eyes, “Who do you think you are, Miss March, to challenge me so blatantly?”
Beatrice stood by the side as a woman, their cook, hiked up her strapped traveling bag, and marched out the orphanage’s door, without a look to anyone. If anything, she sniffed resentfully and strode off down the dirt lane. It was only when she disappeared around the bend that Beatrice slumped on the wall.
Another person has left us. Who is going to cook for us now? Anna and I already have so much on our plate.
A hand rested on her shoulder, and Beatrice turned to crack a smile at Anna. Her sister, who had grown from the thin slip of nothing into a beautiful young woman, same blond hair and brown eyes, was now three-and-twenty, but had a calmer disposition than Beatrice had.
Anna seemed to have read her mind about the woman who had left, “Don’t fret about it. She wasn’t a good cook anyway.”
“I know,” Beatrice slid a hand around the back of her neck and felt the strain at the base. “But what are we going to do now? It's just me, you, Miss Perry, and Samuel here. If we lose another person, we might have to close. The children need us.”
Anna’s cheeks pinked at the mention of the handsome handyman they had at the orphanage.
“They do,” Anna pulled away, “but we can take turns in the kitchen, if I do breakfast, and you do supper, we can make it until the Headmaster finds another cook.”
Shooting a look around the drab front room of the orphanage, Beatrice shook her head, “About that, with all the things going on, I doubt the Headmaster is going to hire anyone. He didn’t care when the teacher for the upper classes left, and he didn’t care when the nurse packed up and left. And that good-for-nothing Earl who controls this place still hasn’t replied. And it’s been two weeks since I sent that letter.”
“I don’t think you should say that about our benefactor,” Anna said cautiously, “the walls have ears.”
Beatrice pressed her palm to her eyes, “I’m tired and frustrated, Anna. When we came to his orphanage so long ago, it was a different place. We had people who cared for us, and who gave us a good enough education that we can stand here and give the same to these children. But there’s only so much we can take.”
“Regardless,” Anna said, “until we get help, we’ll have to make do with what we have.”
“I suppose,” Beatrice muttered. “We have some bread, cheese, and some fruit left. Let’s make some meals for the children before they come out of the chapel. They just started their devotion.”
Moving off to the kitchen, Beatrice passed by the two ground-floor classrooms they used for the younger and older children. The rooms were bare, with a chalkboard that had no chalk and two benches for eight children under ten, and two for those who were older. There were no books in sight and the cracked slates were on the desk, waiting to be picked up by eager hands.
They got to the kitchen, with burn marks on the walls, and a cupboard half-filled with food. As they took down some foodstuffs and worked on the meal, Anna asked, “Why do you think this Earl hasn’t replied?”
Beatrice shrugged, “I don’t know. I’ve been told that no one has seen him in five years. Some think he’s a half-beast with hair all over, and some say he doesn’t come out because he had health issues and is confined to his bed.”
Anna giggled, “And if he is some beast, what are you going to do?”
Remembering a book that Beatrice had read a long time ago, about a beautiful woman bartered off to a beast for a rose, Beatrice glibly said, “I’ll cook him the biggest steak of beef he has ever laid eyes on, and charm him into getting what we need.”
Just before the chapel service was over, they had trays of cheese sandwiches and diced fruit, for the children who were eager to eat and then go off to their studies. The children came into the mess hall, the younger ones giggling and laughing, while the older ones were sober.
Beatrice’s eyes landed on the untamable hair of eight-year-old Rufus, and six-year-old Jenny who had a bright red mop of hair. Rufus was the class jester, always quick with a joke and a tease with an undying grin on his face. Jenny was a happy child as well, but had those bouts of sadness that Beatrice could empathize with when she saw them.
“Settle down,” Beatrice called loudly, “settle down, please. Go wash your hands at the buckets.”
When the children went to wash, Beatrice began to despair; if they didn’t get any help, the orphanage would have to close. Beatrice went back to the kitchen to get jugs of water and some cups for the children, when a knock came on the back door, and she went to answer it. Behind the door, stood Samuel — their handyman.
Tall, nearly brushing six feet or over, the man gave her a small smile. He cocked up the brim of his floppy cap and said, “Mornin’ Miss March. There’s a man at the front askin’ for you. Claims he’s Lord Hollywave.”
The pitcher nearly fell from her hand. Shock resonated through her body like a flash flood. Beatrice managed to get the pitcher on the table and then wipe her suddenly clammy hands on her skirt.
“Er, thanks, Samuel,” she said, “I’ll see to him.”
He flashed her a crooked smile, and with the flash of his blue-green eyes, Beatrice could see why Anna was infatuated with him. Taking in a deep breath, Beatrice carried the jug and tray of cups to the mess hall to find Anna.
“He’s here, Anna,” she whispered.
“Who…” Anna’s eyes then popped, “the Earl? Him? He’s here?”
“Samuel told me just now,” Beatrice said, with a shuddery breath, “Stay here and look over the children. I’ll deal with him alone.”
Anna looked worried, but she nodded, “I understand.”
Wetting her lips, Beatrice walked out of the mess hall and into the front room where a man stood, in a heavy coat and long black hair brushing his collarbones. He had a cane in his gloved hand but was turned away from her. She frowned — he was not leaning heavily on it, so why was he carrying it in the first place?
“Lord Hollywave?” she said, drawing his attention from the window. “Welcome to your orphanage, My Lord.”
Slowly, he turned, and Beatrice felt nailed to her place at the sight of him. Beatrice was far from being a whimsical sort — as she had seen and been through too many gritty situations to entertain dreams — but thankfully, he was not the delicate Adonis that fills little girls’ dreams.
Lord Hollywave had an edge to him. He was a hard handsome. His face had cutting cheekbones, razor-sharp jawline, and gleaming raven-wing hair fluttered with elegant grace to his shoulders. His face, though ashen, was carved with fierce perfection.
Beneath the dark slashes of his brows, his eyes, fringed by thick, stubby lashes were a piercing shade of icy blue. He looked to be in his early thirties, as his face had signs of stress lines.
“Are you Miss Beatrice Marsh?” he asked, stiffly — and instantly, Beatrice went on guard.
“I am,” she affirmed, with a curtsy.
The Lord then reached into his coat and flashed a piece of paper — was that the letter she had written to him? Then, he started to read, parroting her words back to her, so she knew it was her letter.
“We, the faithful operators of your esteemed orphanage, would like to inform you,” he drawled. “I can feel the sarcasm coming from your words, Miss March.”
He went on to mention the Headmaster, the sick child, the lack of medicine, the unhealthy meals, clothes, desks, and literacy of the children, then ended with, “I would hate to accuse you of dishonesty as there are rumors of your generosity, but somewhere along the line of custody, the money is gone. I appeal to you that you investigate this matter as soon as possible, and take the steps needed to correct these mistakes for the sake of these poor children,” his eyes flickered up and held her gaze, “Respectfully, Beatrice March”
He folded the letter and stuck it back in his coat, “I must say upon reading that letter, I believed you to be a harridan, Miss March. You certainly do not mince your words.”
“I apologize if they were misinterpreted, My Lord,” Beatrice said, calmly, “but I was at the end of my rope. I didn’t think downplaying the situation would get your attention, as the situation is dire here.”
“Which is why I decided to come and see for myself,” the Lord added. “You see, it was my father who had made this orphanage, and when he passed, it was handed over to my steward. All I had to do was sign off the money orders to the caretaker, as I believed all was well. You, however, have piqued my attention, and I’m thinking, I might have to have strong words with Mister Hill. If I deem that he has been neglectful of his stewardship, I might have to take action against him.”
The wind in Beatrice’s sails evaporated when she heard him speak so decisively, and she genuinely smiled. “I’ll be happy to take you on a tour, if you would like.”
“I would like that, thank you,” the Lord said as he took his hat from under his arm and shook it out to perch it on his head.
Beatrice came nearer and realized he was about five inches taller. His posture was erect, noble and aristocratic, but Beatrice did not feel intimidated.
“Please, follow me,” she said, gesturing to the door.
He followed her out of the house, and they took the cracked cobblestone walk to the back grounds. She showed him the sparsely grown vegetable garden, the empty water tank, and the dilapidated barn where their thin cows lived. She was about to show him the broken-down wash houses when Samuel came around the corner with a shovel thrown over his shoulder.
He stopped short at seeing them. “Miss March, Lord Hollywave… is there anything I can do for you?”
“Not now, Sam, but thank you for offering,” Beatrice said kindly.
“Right-o then. Good evening to you both,” Samuel tipped his hat and went off whistling.
“He’s our handyman,” Beatrice explained to the Lord, who had twisted to see the other man go off. “Came to us a year-and-ten months ago. Mr. Hill hired him when we decided that it was best for us to grow some of what we eat, instead of having to buy all the time.”
“That a prudent move,” Lord Hollywave said, “A first good thing against his list of transgressions.”
“You have a list?” Beatrice asked.
“I have noticed, Miss March, the discolored walls, the cracked windows, the blackened chimney that I presume has not been in use and might be clogged up…” he paused to allow her to speak, and when Beatrice uttered an affirmative, he went on, “the lack of curtains, carpets, floorboards scrubbed to their heart, and that was just inside the first room. Now, I see a stable about to collapse in on itself, empty tanks of water when there is a flowing river nearby, and a walkway that will break the legs of a donkey if you’re not careful. The only thing I cannot complain about is that the grass, nor the bushes, have overgrown, so you’re not living in a forest.”
Beatrice kept her mirth in, as the overly dry tone the Lord spoke with was profoundly amusing.
“And when we go inside, you’ll see even more,” Beatrice said, solemnly.
As she was about to turn, the loud squeal of laughter heralded a boy, sprinting down the cobbled walk, while looking over his shoulder, probably to see to another that was chasing him. Before she could warn the Lord — the boy crashed into him.
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