A Wanton Heiress for the Duke Preview

A Steamy Regency Romance

 

About the book

A sexy and mysterious Duke has to hand over ten thousand pounds to the most wanton and peculiar commoner he has met...

Poor and hardworking, Eloise Arel has learned the hard way that money doesn’t grow on trees. When a mysterious man breaks into her house, she hits him and interrogates him, until she learns who he really is: the handsome, alluring and infamous Duke Benedict. And to her utter horror, she finds herself oddly attracted to him...

Responsibilities and Benedict are two words that should never be uttered together. After his father’s cruel death, he finds himself not only inheriting the Dukedom but also making amends with every single person his father has wronged. And one of them just so happens to be a peculiar woman who has suddenly inherited ten thousand pounds. And he has to give it to her. When they both decide to solve this unexplained mystery, he finds himself falling in love with her.

And when they kiss, they’re both ruined...

Chapter One


“Oh, what beautiful stitching, Elizabeth.”

The child she had spoken to smiled at her with pride; it was the first genuine smile she’d seen since the 10-year-old girl had come to the orphanage a month prior. “Do you really think so?”

“I really do. You’ve worked very hard at this.” Eloise made a show of holding the hemmed skirt up to the light of the nearby window. “Why, the stitches are practically invisible. You’ll be able to keep yourself looking quite sharp and put together if you’re this skilled already. Now, I think you’ll find you have just enough time to properly put this away and wash up before supper is served.”

Elizabeth carefully draped her work over her arm and stood up to leave. Stopping in the doorway of the parlor, she turned around suddenly and ran back, throwing her arms around Eloise.

“Will you be here tomorrow?”

“I certainly plan on it. Now, off with you, child. You don’t want to miss supper.”

“Do you promise?”

Eloise smiled and gave Elizabeth an extra hug. “I promise.”

“Good. I was scared when I had to come here. But you make it less scary.”

Eloise felt a tug at her heartstrings upon hearing those words.

“I’m glad. You are safe here, my sweet Elizabeth, and this is your home,” she said, barely keeping the emotion out of her voice.

Just as suddenly as she’d come back into the room, Elizabeth ran back out to put away her work as she’d been instructed. As her eyes followed Elizabeth to the door, she was surprised to see a familiar face looking back.

“Jenny! You’re here early today,” she said, unable to keep herself from smiling upon seeing her dearest friend.

Lord, you see the woman every day of the week. It’s not like she’s a long-lost friend you haven’t seen in years.

But wasn’t that part of their connection? They’d been fast friends, sisters of the heart, almost from the moment they’d met as children in this very place.

“One would think that you were still a resident here, Eloise.” The petite woman’s smile betrayed her stern tone.

“How long have you been standing there?”

“Long enough to see that you still have a soft spot for the ones that have the most trouble adjusting.” She stepped forward, and Eloise stepped forward to hug her oldest friend. “I seem to remember another young girl you reached out to and took under your wing.”

Eloise laughed. “Well, sometimes the most beautiful blooms need the most attention at first. And you were scared. What else was I supposed to do?”

Jenny blushed at the compliment, then held out her hand to Eloise. “Come, have supper with the children.”

“I’d rather not take food meant for the children,” Eloise said. “There’s too little to go around as it is.”

“The food is meant for anyone within these walls,” Jenny replied quickly. “Besides, do you not think you’ve given enough that we couldn’t give you a meal occasionally? Besides, the children adore you; it will make them happy to see you.”

Eloise shook her head. Jenny knew what buttons to push to convince her to stay. “Very well. I’ll have some soup, then. On the condition that you accompany me home for a visit this evening.”

“If none of the children have need of me, then I can agree to it.”

“Then we have come to an agreement.”

Eloise extended her arm to Jenny and, hooking arms together, they turned towards the orphanage’s dining room. Somehow, despite the difference in height, she and Jenny always fell into step with one another easily. Jenny was everything Eloise was not; where Jenny was quite petite, Eloise was tall, and very – full would be the kindest way it could be put. Jenny had beautiful straight blonde hair and striking green eyes; Eloise had dark curly hair that she struggled to keep under control, and her eyes were deep blue. They both complemented and contrasted one another well and had been fast friends since the day they met at the orphanage.

Eloise made her way down the dark hallway and crept down the stairs, moving slowly so as to not make any noise. The house mother would be very cross with her if she were to be discovered out and about after bedtime.

She was so hungry, though. At suppertime, she had seen one of the smaller children, a boy of no more than five, have his food stolen from him. Knowing that even if she told what she had seen, nothing would likely be done, she had given him her soup and bread and sat by him while he ate, staring daggers at the thieves, silently daring them to try to take his food again. This was one of the few times that her height had an advantage. Though they were the same age, she was already taller than they were. They were cowards who preferred to make prey of those smaller and weaker than themselves. It was easy for them to talk tough to someone half their size and age. This little one would have food as long as she had anything to say about it.

She was certain she’d be fine until morning without a meal, but her stomach had awoken her, empty and growling, her chest feeling as if it was on fire. Unable to get comfortable enough to return to sleep, she decided she had to see if someone had left a piece of bread out. Even a few crumbs would dull the pain in her stomach. When she entered the kitchen, she was disheartened to find the pantry locked. She could probably pick the lock free, but she feared too much noise would attract the house mother. If she was accused of stealing food, she would certainly be tossed out by her ear.

Her mission a failure, she decided to make her way back to her bed, hopefully without waking anyone up. She made it all the way back to the stairs and started to breathe a little easier as her foot hit the first step.

Then she heard it. It was just a soft sound, barely there, but it caused her to freeze in place. She held her breath and listened. Then she heard it again. It was coming from underneath the stairs.

She slowly backed off the bottom step and sidestepped to peek around the railing, almost afraid of what she would see. Instead of monsters conjured up out of her imagination, what she saw was a tiny blonde nymph, knees up to her chest underneath her sleeping shirt, face buried in her folded arms.

 “Are you all right?” she whispered as she approached her. The girl was startled at the sound of her voice, so Eloise took a careful step back. “You just got here yesterday, didn’t you? Don’t be afraid. My name is Eloise. What’s yours?”

“J-j-jenny.”

When Jenny looked up at her, Eloise could see that she had been crying quite a bit. Eloise’s heart sank. She had been here as long as she could remember, but she had seen many children come and go; the first night always seemed to be the worst for them. Most of them were angry, and all of them were frightened whether they ever admitted to it or not. Eloise always tried to be kind to them. Sometimes it was well-received, sometimes it was not. It was always worth taking a risk, though.

“Jenny. That’s a pretty name. How old are you?”

“Ten. I… think I’m ten, anyway.”

Eloise smiled. “I’m eleven. Well, I think I am, anyway. I’m not sure.”

“I want to go home.”

“You must miss it,” she replied. The girl nodded in response. “This can be your home. We can be friends. It’s always been my home.”

“Always?”

Eloise nodded. “As far as I know. I’ve no memories of living anywhere else.”

Jenny’s green eyes grew wide. “Are… are your mama and papa here?”

“No. I don’t have parents, not that I know of,” she answered. “I’ve been here since I was a small baby.”

Jenny started crying harder, and Eloise quickly shushed her and sat down beside her. “We’re not supposed to be out after bedtime; they’ll be cross with us if they find us out of bed. They say it’s because they’re afraid we’ll fall down the stairs in the dark. I think they just don’t want to bother with us. They probably fall asleep before any of us do.”

Jenny giggled softly but caught herself and cupped her hand over her mouth. Encouraged, Eloise sat with her a little longer and talked to her until she was sure the new girl was calmer. When she felt they could safely get back to their beds, she stood and offered her a hand.

“We’ll be like sisters,” Eloise said confidently. “Come on now, before someone finds us.”

                                       ***

“Where’s your head today, Eloise?”

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“You’ve been staring at your tea for a good five minutes now. Are you all right? Or have you just decided to take up reading tea leaves?”

Eloise smiled at the jest.

“I’m fine, Jenny. I’m just tired. Thank you for the soup and for the tea.”

“You give too much of yourself, Eloise. You always have. Let someone give back to you every once in a while, eh? After all, you’re right.”

“About?”

“This is my home,” Jenny said, seeming to read Eloise’s thoughts. “That night you found me under the stairs, you told me this could be my home. Just like you told little Elizabeth, this was her home, too. And so it is.”

Jenny squeezed Eloise’s hand as they stood, and Eloise headed home for the evening, accompanied by Jenny just as she had requested. Even after all these years, it occasionally still took her by surprise at how Jenny truly was her only family. She and every child who passed through the orphanage were her family, each of them connected by this place, formed by it, shaped by it, and, she hoped, made better by it. Although she had no money, she certainly had come a long way from having been born into who-knows-what kind of circumstances to having a tremendous and ever-evolving family, including someone she could most certainly consider her sister-of-the-heart.


Chapter Two


“Good morning, Mother. How are you feeling this morning?”

Benedict leaned over his mother and kissed her cheek before sitting down at the breakfast table with his mother and younger sisters.

“Good morning.” His mother leaned into his kiss, then frowned once she got a proper look at him when he sat down beside her. “Oh, darling, you still aren’t sleeping well, are you?”

“I was up a little too late last night, Mother. My apologies. I had some last-minute things to attend to. I have to be off into town this morning to take care of some…” he paused momentarily and eyed his eight-year-old sister, deciding to choose his words carefully. “Of Father’s business details.”

His mother reached over and rested a hand on his forearm. “Must it be taken care of today?”

“It is best that we get these matters settled as quickly as possible, Mother. I will be back by the end of the day. I promise.”

“May I go with you, Ben?”

He looked at his sixteen-year-old sister, surprised. “You wish to go into town, Cassie? Why, what urgent business do you have that I could not accomplish for you?”

Cassie narrowed her gaze at him, her gray eyes peering at him above her spectacles, but she held back a smirk as he winked at her.

“I know Father wanted to donate some money to the orphanage. I should like to see it, to visit with the children and see that the conditions are suitable.”

“What’s an orphanage?” Melisa piped in.

Benedict winced inwardly; that was one conversation he had been hoping to avoid having with Melisa just yet. She was only eight, and he wished to preserve her childhood innocence for as long as possible.

“Well done, Cassie, now we must explain,” Janet said angrily. Benedict glared at his eldest sister, who simply folded her arms and returned his glare.

Cassie hung her head briefly but chose to ignore her older sister as she turned her attention back to her youngest one.

“An orphanage,” she explained, “is a place for children who don’t have someone to care for them. They don’t have parents or an elder brother like Ben to care for them as we do.”

“But why don’t they have parents?”

“Sometimes, they are ill. Sometimes they have already gone to Heaven, as Father has.” Cassie looked at her brother, silently pleading for help.

“So, it is up to us, who are more fortunate, to help them as much as we are able,” Benedict added.

“I think I should like to visit them as well. Perhaps they would find comfort in an occasional playmate.”

“I think that is a lovely idea, and I am sure you are right. But you have studies to attend to today, so perhaps someday soon we can arrange the time. Now, finish your breakfast, so you can grow up to be big and strong like your sisters and will be able to help others.”

Melisa looked disappointed that she wouldn’t be traveling with him, but, much like the gentle, agreeable young lady she had always been, merely nodded and took a bite of her plum cake. Cassie mouthed the words “thank you” at him for simultaneously explaining and distracting the child while Janet continued to glare at him from her place across the table.

The only sister who hadn’t spoken at all was twelve-year-old Freya. The poor child was at an awkward distance in age from all of her siblings. Her two elder sisters were almost adults, her youngest sister still a child, so she tended to not speak much when they were all gathered in the same space. Benedict waited to see if she would chime in, but she remained silent, so he turned his attention back to Cassie.

“Cassie, I’m afraid there won’t be time today, but I promise I will take you soon. I may stop at confectioner’s before I return, though, and perhaps I will bring you something delicious to enjoy.”

He expected Melisa to brighten at the mention of the confectioner’s, but she didn’t seem to register that he had even said the word, let alone show any interest in making a request for her favorite sweets.

“My dear little Mellie, is there something I can bring you from town? Anything special you would like?”

“No, sir.”

Benedict raised an eyebrow at the little one calling him ‘sir’.

“My word, haven’t we gotten formal? Sir? What do you think of that, Mother?” he teased.

“Well, I must be getting old if one of my children is calling another one sir.”

“Nonsense. You could pass as the girls’ eldest sister, and are more beautiful than ever, Mother.”

She smiled at him and touched the back of her fingertips to his face. “You are being polite, darling. We have raised you well.”

“Freya? You’re being unusually quiet this morning. Shall I bring you something special from town?”

“No, thank you,” she replied dully. “Will you be able to go riding with me this evening?”

“The hounds of hell could not keep me from it.”

In one short conversation, he had assessed the relative mood of all his sisters. He found it odd that their mother didn’t respond to any of the conversations at the table, other than the teasing remark when Melisa had called him ‘sir’, but she had been like that since their father’s death, often not speaking unless spoken to directly. They were all deep in mourning for their father, but she had taken the death of her husband especially hard. She had been a bride at the age of 19, so she had lost someone that she had spent her entire adult life loving.

In truth, all of them were at crucial periods in their lives to have lost someone. Little Mellie was a mere babe of eight. Her memories of their father would be few, and they would fade as she grew older. Not having the chance to truly know the wonderful man that was her father was a true tragedy for her.

Poor Freya was a mere twelve, not quite a child but not yet an adult either; a crucial period for a father’s guidance, and Benedict hoped he could provide acceptable guidance as her only brother. He felt woefully unprepared to handle a young lady on the verge of womanhood, so he hoped the two elder sisters would fill an important role on matters which Freya might not feel comfortable coming to ask him about.

Cassie, at sixteen, would not have the opportunity to have her father at her debut during her first Season and would have to make do with him – a brother trying to stand in a father’s place. It was a tragedy, but he knew Cassie would meet any challenge with grace and serenity as she always did.

And then there was Janet. Oh, Janet. Janet would also have to make do with him being a brother standing in a father’s place; only at the age of eighteen, she was just close enough to him in age to refuse to see him as any type of authority or guiding figure. They were at odds with one another more than they actually got along, as he and his sister were quite matched in their stubborn resolve. Their father had a way of diffusing her temper and redirecting her energies; Benedict had yet to master that skill.

So much loss for all of them. Such big shoes for him to attempt to fill. All while he was dealing with his own grief. He had been trying to maintain some of the cheer that their meals together used to have before – well before. Their lives had been permanently divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’ and coming to terms with their new reality was going to be a challenge for all of them.

His father, William Manners, Duke of Springton, had passed all too soon. He supposed there was never a good time to lose a family member, but this death had seemed especially cruel. At the age of 25, Benedict had to take on the mantle of the Duke of Springton, oversee his father’s estate, and care for his mother and sisters. The Duke was a much-admired man, and all of Springton seemed at a loss without him. Benedict hoped he could live up to a portion of his father’s image and guide them all to the greatness they deserved.

His most important duty, however, was to take care of his family, to see that his mother and his sisters were all comfortably situated for the future.

With Melisa being only eight, he feared losing their father so soon would ruin her childhood. He wanted her to have the childhood he had, happy memories, feeling safe and loved. Only recently she was begging for a pet, and Benedict thought their father might have been on the verge of allowing it – especially given his own liking for pure breeds and hounds. Now she was fatherless, her fate, and indeed her entire future, were depending on the decisions he made for her.

Freya was almost thirteen, and at the age where she was no longer a child, but still very much child-like. It was a crucial time in life to have a father’s guidance, and Benedict would have to be that guidance now. He hoped his two older sisters could provide the guidance that needed a female touch; he wasn’t certain that their mother was in any state to fill that role.

Cassie and Janet were both almost adults; in fact, Janet was to be presented in the coming Season. She should hopefully be married within the next couple of years and on her way to establishing her own family’s future.

To say he was feeling the burden of responsibility would be an understatement. His father’s death was a mystery. William Manners had been going about business as usual, by all appearances healthy and happy, and within the span of a month, had become gravely ill and was very soon after gone. It was all extremely perplexing.

Even more perplexing was the will. He had thus far only discussed the will with their mother, and even at that, he had been careful which parts he shared with her. They were all well provided for, of course. For his father, family was everything, and he ensured they would be able to live comfortably for all their lives. The confusion came with the list of people that he wanted sums of money donated to. Most of it was expected: household servants who were growing too old to do much work were to be given enough to be made comfortable and were to be allowed to live on the estate until death, should they so choose. A sum of money was to be donated to the orphanage; that had been expected. His father had been generous to the Franklin Home for Children for as long as Benedict remembered. He planned on keeping up the tradition of providing for them, in honor of his father, in addition to the sum that they were to inherit.

All of that was expected and would be followed to the letter without question. However, two names were very unexpected. There was a sum of a mere 25 pounds to James Weston, Earl of Lennox. That would be a mere pittance to the Weston family, and would indeed be almost an insult, so it was curious that his father would make such a public statement.

But even more baffling was the inclusion of a woman by the name of Eloise Arel, who was left a sum of 10000 pounds. Why so large a sum? Who was she? Benedict could not remember ever hearing the name, nor did he have any recollections of seeing it written anywhere in any of their documents. Eloise Arel was a complete mystery, a name without meaning, a mystery to be solved.

Until he had more information, Benedict had chosen to keep this part of the will unknown to his mother. Was his father having an affair? His parents had always seemed to have the perfect marriage, and while he realized that there were some aspects of a couple’s life that they would wish to keep private from their children, he hoped that infidelity was not one of those secrets – not when he had seen the love and affection with which they lavished upon one another.

In the three weeks since his father’s passing, he had attempted to find any information he could on this mysterious woman. Eloise Arel seemed to have materialized out of thin air as if God had created a fully grown woman and dropped her into the middle of London society.

The family’s solicitor had sent a message the previous day that they needed to meet to discuss this issue, and Benedict assumed the man had made a discovery. There was no hint of what the discovery might be, and he feared the worst.

Was it possible that his father had an affair that resulted in an illegitimate child? If so, this had to be settled quietly. His mother was already grieving herself to death. She would not survive the knowledge that the love of her life had been unfaithful.

“A word, Benedict.”

Damn it. Benedict hadn’t realized that his eldest sister had followed him after he’d excused himself from the breakfast table. He had almost reached his room to gather the necessities for the trip. He was hoping to get out quietly so that he could get this day over with and behind him. Holding in a sigh of exasperation, he turned to face Janet.

“Anything for you, sister.”

“Privately,” she said as she pushed past him, opening his own door to his room. She paused and stared at him. “Well?”

“After you, my dear.”

Janet disappeared through the door, and after a heavy sigh, Benedict shook his head and followed her inside.

“I have many things to take care of today, Janet, so I must leave for town soon. How may I be of assistance?”

She presumptuously sat down at his desk and picked up the one bundle of paperwork he had hoped to keep from them for as long as possible.

“What is this nonsense in Father’s will?”

“I hardly call a gentleman outlining his wishes after death nonsense. Since you seem to have retained the knack for sneaking around places you aren’t meant to be, why don’t you tell me what part of the ‘nonsense’ you are referring to?”

Janet rolled her eyes. “Spare me.”

Benedict took a deep breath to still his temper before he spoke.

“Speak with care, sister,” he warned. Janet had always been an awkward soul, one who could so easily make trouble if she chose to do so.

She stood facing him with a searching expression on her face. At 5’9”, she was tall for a woman, and although there had always been sibling rivalry between the two of them due to their proximity in age, she had never been afraid of him. It amused him to some extent, but he also knew that she was aware that he would never strike her. So, there they stood, two siblings, inches apart, staring one another down. He was not going to be the one to look away first.

Benedict looked at Mother and Father with tears in his eyes. Mother was pacing back and forth, bouncing his screaming two-year-old brat of a sister to get her to stop.

“Well, we’re waiting for an answer, son. Why did you push your sister down?”

He couldn’t find the words to answer, instead looking at the tiny carved wooden soldier in his hand and back at his father.

“I see.” His father kneeled in front of him and held his hand out. “Give it to me.”

Benedict clutched it tighter in his hand before relenting and handing the prized toy to his father.

“I… I didn’t mean to. She picked it up and put it in her mouth. I was just trying to get it back.”

“Benedict, you are her elder brother.” His mother said gently. “She loves you. That’s why she wants to follow you around everywhere.”

“I know, Mother. But I just wanted… I wanted something for my own, something I don’t have to share with her. I already have to share you both with her. And I was afraid she might get hurt. You know, bite off part of it and swallow it.”

“Ah, see, my boy, you’re already being an excellent elder brother. It is your duty to protect her, always.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt her.”

“Who is Eloise Arel?”

You must protect her, always.

Benedict shook off the memory as he realized his sister was still speaking to him.

“I haven’t the slightest clue, Janet. Before Father passed, I had never heard the name before.”

“And why would Father leave her ten thousand  pounds?”

“Again, I haven’t the slightest clue. I have never heard of her, and I have no idea who she is or who she might be. Now, if you will excuse me,” he took the paper bundle from her hands and inclined his head towards it, “I have an appointment with our solicitor to find out just that.”

“Ten thousand pounds!”

“Lower. Your. Voice,” he said through clenched teeth, enunciating each word to emphasize his point. “Do not breathe one word of this to anyone until I find out what is going on. Not. One. Word. If she is indeed entitled to this money, then she shall have it, and we aren’t to question it. Father would not knowingly wrong someone.”

Janet growled under her breath, gave him one last hard stare for good measure, and stomped out of the room. She slammed the door, and as she did so, he heard something hit the floor. Walking over to the bookcase he kept by the door, he saw it, the tiny toy wooden soldier. In his grief, he must have removed it from the steamer trunk where it had been so carefully stored. His father had given him this toy soldier, and he hoped to pass it on to his own children one day, should he be so fortunate.

“All right, father,” he said to the empty air. “I will do my best.”


Chapter Three


Eloise put away her clean breakfast dish, made her bed, and carefully got ready for her day. She may be poor, but she was going to take pride in her appearance. She might just be doing chores around her little house, but that was no excuse to look sloppy. She unbraided her hair and tried to make it bow to her will, pinning it into submission as best as she could. She’d always been self-conscious about her curls, as they never seemed to want to behave. Never the perfectly set curls of the fancy ladies of the ‘ton. Just a mass of curls. But then, she wasn’t a fancy lady, now, was she?

Choosing clothing for the day was not difficult, as she only had one outfit. She maintained every piece of it meticulously. It might be shabby and worn, but it was in good repair.

Finding herself dressed and presentable at last, she looked around her small house to see what needed to be taken care of. Most days, she would already be at Franklin Home. While it was fairly well run when she was a child, the current officials in charge of the Home were scarcely interested in maintaining it. Eloise would go in and help the older children wrangle the younger ones and get them all prepared for the day. She would then set about making sure all the children were fed, and then she would go about getting groups started. The oldest ones would take turns teaching the younger children various skills, while she and Jenny ran between organizing groups and doing various chores for the Home.

Jenny had made her promise that she would stay at home today and rest. Eloise thought it a ridiculous request. She was unemployed; what was she to do with her time? She maintained her own modest home in the early hours before and the late hours after she took care of the children. It wasn’t like there was a large area that needed to be kept tidy. Besides, caretakers do not get to rest.

At noon, she looked around her home and realized she’d already taken care of everything that needed to be cared for. She had washed her tabletop and floors, inspected her one blanket for any needed mending, and had cut squares from old clothes she saved from the home that were beyond repair to be used as clothing, and –

This is completely ridiculous. She lifted the front door key from its hook and opened the door, only to see Jenny walking towards her door.

“Jenny! Is something the matter? Are the children all right?”

“Oh, everything is fine. I thought you wouldn’t keep your promise. I thought I would come visit and keep you company.”

“But the children…”

“The children are in the capable hands of Maddie. The girl is 15. She can keep the little imps in check for a few hours.”

Eloise sighed, although whether with relief or annoyance, she wasn’t sure.

“Come in, then. It looks about to rain, and you’ll catch your death.”

With a wry smile, Jenny walked past her and into the house.

“Let me get the fire going again, and I’ll make us some tea,” Eloise said, donning her apron cloth once more and busying herself with the fire. “You know, if you’d been here ten minutes ago, it would still be going.”

“Don’t you say, now,” Jenny said, her green eyes twinkling. “Well, I’ll watch my timing next time.”

Eloise shook her head. “I’m sorry, I don’t have…”

“You don’t have to offer me anything. You’ve been like a sister to me since the day we met. All I need is your company.”

While they waited for the fire to heat the water in the pot over the fireplace, they sat at her table and talked.

“You and Maddie planned this, didn’t you?”

“Of course we did. You’re looking a bit poorly. You need to start giving back to yourself, or soon you’ll have nothing left to give.”

Eloise waved her off. “Pffft.”

“Now, if Maddie, a mere girl, noticed you wearing down,” her friend insisted, “it’s time to rest a little. You deserve it.”

“Oh, let’s not go talking about what we deserve now, shall we?” Eloise snapped. “I promise you, I am fine.”

“If you say so.”

“I do.”

They fell into a rather uncomfortable silence. Eloise was rarely cross with anyone, and on the occasions when her tone was sharp, it was usually much harder than she intended, and she always regretted it. After a few moments of quiet, Eloise started fidgeting. She got up to check on the water, wiped her hands on her makeshift apron waist, then sat back down. She repeated this twice more, and finally, Jenny stood and grabbed her hands.

“Eloise. What is going on with you?” Jenny closed her hands over hers. “You’re shaking, you’re jumping at shadows. You’ve always been the calm one.”

“Oh, Jenny. I don’t even know where to start. The board doesn’t care about Franklin Home. Do you think it would even still be going if we’d just walked away when we turned seventeen? Of the whole lot of this ‘board’ that is supposed to take care of the place, do you think any of them would give a second thought if the entire building just crumbled to dust with everyone inside it?”

Jenny shook her head sadly. “Ah, my dear Eloise. You take too much on yourself.”

“And you don’t?” Eloise accused. “You and your little garden in that pitiful little backyard. That’s where most of the food comes from.”

“Well, I like eating, too, so the garden is a necessity. And we do get some donations. But you’re getting sick, Eloise. You cannot keep this pace up.”

Jenny was right, of course. Eloise may have always been the calm one, but she tended to be calm in the face of an emergency, while Jenny tended to think things through to try to circumvent the emergency in the first place. Eloise put out fires. Jenny prevented them.

She finally sat down at the table again and let Jenny prepare the tea. Together they sat and let the aroma of the tea fill the room while it steeped. Certainly, there was nothing fancy about it, but it was more comforting than anything Eloise could imagine.

“Jenny!”

Jenny smirked at her as she slid her flask back into her skirt pocket.

“To take the edge off. Come on now, it’ll do you good. I‘m not suggesting you fall down in a stupor. Just enough to relax you.”

Eloise looked at her friend dubiously.

“Oh, all right.”

When the leaves had steeped enough, Eloise took a sip, wrinkling her nose at the sharp aroma of alcohol mixing in with the tea. Brandy. It wasn’t good brandy, but it would do its job.

As the brandy-spiked tea settled in, Eloise did feel herself relaxing far more than she had in a long time. They started talking about how they felt some of the more troubled children were progressing; one anecdote led to another, and before long, they were reminiscing about various adventures they had gotten away with, and whether or not they were worse than what the children they cared for had been getting away with (or in some instances), thought they were getting away with. Neither Eloise nor Jenny were so hardened as to not let children be children when it was just harmless fun.

“Oh, my word, it’s starting to get late. I should head back.”

Eloise looked out the window and noticed the light was indeed fading. It was still light enough to see well, but it would be dark soon.

“Stay the night, Jenny. This isn’t a place a lady wants to find herself in after dark, wandering the streets.”

“Well, it’s a good thing I’m no lady, then, isn’t it? I’ll be fine. There’s plenty of light left, and it’s a short walk.”

“I really wish you would…”

“Hush.”

Eloise started to speak again, annoyed, but Jenny shook her head. “No, I mean, I heard something. At the window. Hush.”

“Probably one of the rag-a-tag imps,” Eloise said, standing up, despite Jenny’s protests. “There’s been a couple of mischievous ones lately.”

She started for the door, stepping around Jenny’s outstretched hand. She would have been wise to heed Jenny’s warning, though, for no more had she stepped towards the door than it started opening.

“Quickly,” she whispered, “grab the fireplace poker.”

Jenny grabbed the poker and handed it to Eloise, then stood behind her. Each of them pressed their backs against the wall next to the door and waited. Eloise raised the poker into striking position, took a deep breath, and came down HARD on the first thing to come through the door.

“Dash it all!” Jenny exclaimed as the form of a man fell forward at their feet.

Eloise pushed the smaller woman behind her and backed him towards the door.

“Run and get help, Jenny!”

“And leave you here alone? I hardly think so. What in the blazes – is he moving? Did you kill him?”

“I dare say if one blow from a fireplace poker killed him, he likely wasn’t much of a threat, to begin with.”

“But is he moving?”

Eloise tapped the man’s leg, and he didn’t move. She drew in a breath and waited. There was no movement. She poked at him harder, with the same result. Did she just kill a man?

“Jenny. Close the door.”

“What?”

“Close the door. Quickly!”

Cautiously she stepped towards the – she tried not to think the word ‘body’ – then stopped and watched him carefully, looking for any sign of movement, any sound that would tell her…

“Nnnng.”

The man groaned and rolled from his side to his back, startling both of them. Eloise backed up, keeping herself between the intruder and Jenny as they sidestepped around him.

“A well-dressed gentleman to be around this part of town, isn’t he?”

Eloise cursed under her breath. The clothes did look rather expensive, but the light was fading. They didn’t really have time to inspect the workmanship on his clothing up close just yet. First and foremost, they needed to be sure they were safe. After their safety was ensured, then they could get down to the minutiae of the situation they found themselves in, which might have seemed farcical if it were not deadly serious.

“Quickly now,” she told her friend again. “We need to make sure he doesn’t have any weapons. Set a couple of those candles to light and bring them closer.” She kneeled down by him in a position where she could easily back out of reach if he moved suddenly. “Who’d you steal these clothes from, friend? Rather fancy for this bit of town; you really can’t disappear into the crowd looking like this, now, can you?” She opened his coat and carefully felt around, feeling for telltale lumps in the clothing and turning out the pockets. “Well, I don’t know what choices brought you to this house, but I can guarantee you it is not going the way you expected it to.”

“Who are you talking to?”

“I am just–thinking out loud. Here, take this.” She handed Jenny a dagger she found in an inner coat pocket and continued her search, patting in close to his body, moving quickly from his chest, down his sides, his waist, and then down his legs. She checked both shoes and found one additional knife.

No pistol. That’s strange. If he was a thief, one would think he had come across at least one decent pistol. And, if he was a gentleman, particularly one up to no good, he would certainly be able to afford one.

As Jenny placed the weapons securely out of reach, Eloise looked around for something to secure their intruder with.

“The butcher’s twine,” Jenny said as if reading her mind. She grabbed it from the mantle over the fireplace. “Roll him over.”

“What?”

“Trust me.”

Eloise shrugged and turned her attention back to the intruder; their time to secure him was growing short – he would surely recover consciousness soon.

“Get ready. Here we go. One, two, three…”

Jenny pulled, and Eloise pushed, and the two of them rolled him to his side, then to his stomach.

“All right, pull his arms back. There we go.”

Working together, they bound his arms together at the elbows and at the wrists. Eloise then pulled over one of the chairs, and they each hooked an arm under one of his shoulders to lift him to the chair. Jenny then secured the man’s arms and legs to the chair.

“Well, if I didn’t see him breathing myself, I’d swear you killed him. Not a peep out of the bugger. I’d expect him to be screaming the entire time, or at least putting up a bit of a fight--he has a nasty bump on the head.” Jenny paused and looked back and forth between her and their new ‘friend’. “So, now what?”

“We wait,” Eloise said, pushing an aggressively unruly curl behind her ear.

And hopefully not for long. Eloise wanted to find out who this man was and why he was breaking into her house.

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  • So far father’s death seems suspicious & strange. At 25 the son doesn’t know much about the family’s monetary situation. What was he doing? It seems to me father would have been teaching him & preparing him to take over in the event something would happen to himself. The sister who is 18 sure seems nosey & wanting to know all about father’s will. Interested to read more.

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