The London docks was no place for a gentleman. The putrid smells from the river permeated the cobblestones and the brick. Once thriving warehouses that crowded along the sides of the main streets were now dirty, run-down, locked and shuttered. The streets were poorly lit—if there was any street lighting at all. The filth, grime, and ash hovering in the air blackened every surface along these dark streets and alleyways. These conditions were not fit for man or beast, and there were no signs of any residences or pedestrians. Yes, this was no place for a gentleman to be seen. Not unless there was a bodyguard or several burly footmen by his side.
The gentleman carried only his walking stick and a hooded lantern to keep himself concealed. He picked his way along these cobbled streets. He raised the cover on the lantern now and then to look for some kind of street identification—but in this part of London, there were few if any street signs. His lantern reflected some of its light off the sooty windows casting a ghostly shadow across the few parked wagons.
The gentleman walked alone. He turned the corner and heard faint singing in the silent and eerie darkness. There must be a pub tucked away in some narrow side street.
He could not find what he was looking for, and the gentleman grumbled. He hurried his pace and soon the music from the pub drifted away. He could hear only his footsteps. Then he listened to the echo of two sets of footsteps running toward him. The gentleman stopped, raised the cover on his lantern, and turned to find the source.
Suddenly, the lantern was struck from his hand. Amidst the pitch black and moonless night, he felt two large muscular hands seize his shoulders. With a loud shriek, he fell to the cobbles. He heard the throaty sounds of a harsh voice.
“Aye, it be time, fine gentleman,” the thug said, “Barker wants ‘is money. All of it. Paid now. You understand?”
The gentleman struggled to free himself and crawl away. He felt another set of hands grab his free arm. With the foulest of breath, the second man whispered, “He means business, he does. And it is not just your sweet self who’ll suffer. But kith and kin. You understand me meaning?”
“I will do what I can. I am a little short just at the moment but with a day or two…”
“Tomorrow noon—or we guarantee you will regret it.”
The gentleman lay petrified on the ground. The larger goon kicked him in stomach while the other snatched up the lantern, and together they ran away. The gentleman struggled to his feet, and by feeling the contours of the buildings with his hand, he attempted to retreat to a safer place.
* * *
Her father made meat pies. Her mother baked the bread and Jenny made the cakes and fruit pies—six days a week every week of the year—even on the sacred Sundays leading up to the Christmas holidays when special breads, cakes, and pies were in great demand.
As the eldest child at two-and-twenty, Jenny Barnett was responsible for not only the baking but was expected also to help keep an eye on the younger children—Sally aged eleven; Robert at thirteen was already helping serve customers; and Claudia, seventeen, was being trained to start the morning dough, clean the pans and bowls, and prepare the bakery for the next day of baking.
But one thing their parents insisted on was the children’s education. Even though the younger children needed to be trained in the business, they were also required to have an education, and they spent part of each day at the local school.
It was not until the shop closed in the late afternoon—after all the goods were sold—that Jenny had any time to herself. Her two favorite activities were reading and taking walks around the beautiful Cotswold countryside—often with her friend, Helena Comerford. She was the daughter of Lord Comerford, who owned a large estate near the small town of Chatsworth in Gloucestershire, where Jenny and her family had their home and bakery.
Chatsworth was a typical Cotswold village with a population of about six hundred. The streets, the houses, the bridge, and the church were all constructed of the same sandy colored stone quarried from the surrounding hills, and the roofs were covered with locally sourced slate tiles. The main road entered from the east, and crossing the Camber River, exited to the southwest. The heart of Chatsworth was centered on the town square where the best shops were located—including the Barnett Bakery. There were very few side streets, so all the social activity was centered on the square where the daily market was held.
The houses were built against the street, with no front gardens, although some of the houses had managed to plant a few shrubs, bushes, or climbing roses to soften the front of the house and provide a modicum of privacy.
It was a sleepy village with only one constable and a volunteer fire brigade. The mayor was the village smithy.
Helena came into the shop just after Jenny had taken off her apron and was running her hand through her flour-dusted hair.
Helena burst out laughing. “Jenny, Jenny, what am I to do with you?”
Jenny turned to her friend and asked, “What? What did I do now?”
“Look at you. You look like you just fell out of a flour sack.”
“Well, I have just put in a full day’s work. What do you expect? It is not as though I am going to a ball.”
Helena went over and tried to tidy Jenny’s hair after running her hands through it to shake out most of the flour.
Without a doubt, Jenny was a very handsome young woman. She had raven black hair which set off her fair skin and blue eyes. She was tall and had refined looking features. But what everyone noticed first about Jenny were her sparkling, smiling eyes and her full generous mouth. Many a young man in town was anxious to make Jenny their young lady, but she was in no position to be thinking about romance just now. Her family needed her in the business. She so thoroughly enjoyed baking and was seriously thinking of becoming a pastry cook in some fine country home one day.
Helena stood back and cocked her head to see if she had made any improvement in Jenny’s appearance. “There,” Helena said, “You look much better.” But she scolded, “My dear Jenny, I have to say, you really do not take very good care of yourself. You are so beautiful, but you hide your beauty from the world by dressing like a ruffian. And your hair…”
“But these are my working clothes, Helena. You cannot expect me to dress up when I need to heave flour and sugar sacks and chop bushels of fruit all day long. Really… be reasonable.”
“But how are you ever going to find romance?”
Jenny sighed. “Oh, my dear friend, romance could not be further from my mind. You know what my ambition is—I want to be the pastry cook in a fine aristocratic house someday. And who knows, I might even bake a splendid cake or pie for the King.”
“Well your pastries are certainly a delight. All of Chatsworth flock to your doors each day begging for more.”
Helena was the same age as Jenny, but she was the complete opposite—while Jenny was dark, Helena was fair. She cut a fine figure in her form-fitting muslin dress with few adornments. Helena had naturally curly blonde hair which she wore charmingly pinned up—often with a few flowers woven in. She was more petite than Jenny, but her brightness shown in her pleasing smile and bright blue eyes.
Jenny went to the shop door and opened it. “I was hoping we might hike up to Randall’s Craig today. Is that too much for you?” Jenny asked.
“Not at all. But might I leave my shopping basket with you? I have a number of errands to perform this afternoon.”
“Let me take it upstairs. We will be locking the shop soon.” She turned and called into the shop, “I am leaving.”
Her father replied from the back, “Very well, my dear. Shall we see you at supper?”
“Yes, Father. I shall be home in time to help Mama.”
They left the bakery and went to the door, just to the left of the shop, which led to the family’s living quarters above the bakery.
“Wait here,” Jenny instructed, and she ran up the stairs and left Helena’s basket. She grabbed a shawl and ran back to the street.
“All ready,” she said, taking her friend’s arm and they headed off down the street and out of town.
Just a short distance outside the village, they turned onto a path that led deeper into the countryside. Randall’s Craig had a commanding view of the landscape and, as the friends began climbing toward the Craig, Jenny asked, “Have you told your father about George yet?”
Helena looked at Jenny and frowned. “Oh, Jenny, that I only could. Father is so intent that Thomas and I marry he absolutely refuses to allow me to consider any other gentleman.”
The path up to the Craig was becoming steeper and Jenny had to reach out and grab hold of a limb to help with the climb. Her attention was momentarily distracted, but once she was a little higher, she asked again, “And how does George feel about the two of you meeting in secret? I cannot think he is very happy about that—being the fine and open gentleman that he is.”
“It is all very complicated as George and Thomas are such good friends, and Thomas and I have been friends since we were children. Can you imagine… both George and I must each keep our courting from our very best friend? It is agony.”
They finally reached the top of the Craig and sat on a rock outcrop gazing across the lovely rolling landscape. Jenny took a napkin out of her pocket, unwrapped it, and took out two apple tarts, giving one to Helena.
“Here is a little treat.”
“Why is your father so insistent that you marry Thomas?” Jenny finally asked as she licked her fingers after finishing the tart.
“Oh, Jenny, Thomas is the Duke of Pemberton and father wants me to be a Duchess.”
“But you have been friends a long time. Why can you not consider marrying him?”
Helena glanced at her friend. “Because we are friends and nothing else. There are no romantic feelings on either of our parts. We are much more like brother and sister than sweethearts. It would be ghastly if we were to marry.” She laughed and then leaned toward Jenny. “Especially with Thomas’s terrible reputation.”
“Oh, yes… there is that,” Jenny smirked.
A cool breeze was picking up as a bank of threatening clouds began heading their way.
Jenny scanned the sky and suggested, “Perhaps we should go before we get drenched.”
They scrambled up and began descending the Craig.
“Did you walk to town or take your carriage?” Jenny asked.
“I walked. It started out such a fine summer’s day.”
“Do you want to stay for supper? Papa made some very fine venison pies this morning. I can promise you a fine meal.”
“That might be lovely but let us see what the weather is like when we get back to the village. I know mater and pater will worry if I do not show up for dinner.”
“But you stay over for supper all the time. Will they not understand that?”
“I expect so.” Then Helena blushed, “But I am not going directly home. You see, George and I…”
“A clandestine meeting?” Jenny teased.
“Exactly. We try to meet on days when I come to the village.”
“Unchaperoned?” Jenny asked with some surprise.
“Actually not. It is at my Aunt Rosemary’s house. We have tea with her, but she always manages to leave us alone for a few moments of private conversation.”
“Then she knows you two are courting?”
Helena nodded. “She does and is very supportive. It is just about the only way we can meet and talk.”
“But at some point, the two of you are going to need to confront your father. This secret courting cannot go on indefinitely.”
They were now entering the confines of the village and soon passed the town square.
Helena tied the ribbons of her bonnet under her chin as the wind was picking up. She looked up at the threatening sky and said, “Oh, Jenny, I think it is indeed going to rain. How can I get to Aunt Rosemary’s without getting soaked?”
“I think you best stay for supper. I can send Joseph to inform your Aunt… and George… that you will not be showing up this afternoon.”
“It will be a disappointment for both of us, but I expect you are right,” Helena sighed.
Just then the first drops of rain began to fall, driven by the increasing wind. They laughed and sprinted the rest of the way down the street to the Barnett residence.
They were just starting to get wet when they rushed in the front door and bolted up the stairs to the sitting room, laughing and shaking their heads to fling off the rain.
Susan, Jenny’s mother, called cheerily from the kitchen, “Have we got a guest for supper then?”
“Yes, Mama, Helena is staying.” She cast a look at Helena who nodded. “And is Joseph about?”
“He and your father are locking up the shop, they will be right up.”
Jenny went to the kitchen. Her mother was putting out the plates and bowls for the table. “Will you call Sally to place the table?”
Susan was a robust and red-cheeked woman with strong arms from years of kneading bread. She seemed to always be laughing and was the heart of the family.
“Why do you need Joseph?” Mama asked.
“I need to send him to Helena’s Aunt’s to say she will not be there for tea because of the storm.”
Mama patted her daughter’s cheek. “You are such a thoughtful girl, little Jenny.”
“Mama, I am not little anymore.”
“But you are to me. Now fetch Sally and I’ll send Joseph to you when he and your father come up.”
“Is there anything I can do to help with supper?” Jenny asked.
“You entertain your friend I will get Claudia to peel the potatoes and carrots.”
Jenny called for Sally to help her mother, and then went back to the sitting room where Helena sat at the desk, writing a note. She looked up when Jenny entered.
“I am sending this to George. He will be upset if I do not send him a personal message.” She folded the sheet of paper, put it in the envelope, sealed it, and wrote his name on the front.
“Miss Jenny, your mother says you needed me to deliver a message?” Joseph, the elderly retainer, asked, as he came from the kitchen.
“I hate to send you out on an errand in this weather, but Miss Helena needs this letter delivered to Rosemary Broadbent’s house as soon as you can.”
“Not to worry, Miss Jenny. I have my rainwear right at hand.”
He took the letter and left.
Jenny held out her hand to her friend. “Come to my room. I have a new book I want to show you. It is a delightful romance that I am certain you will want to read—when I am finished, of course.”
Laughing they ran to Jenny’s room where they threw themselves on Jenny’s bed. Their stockings felt damp, so they undid and kicked off their shoes. They sprawled across the bed, stared up at the ceiling, and listened as the rain pelted the windows and a cozy fire warmed the room.
“It seems like we have known each other forever. Do you remember how we met?” Helena asked, drifting into a fading memory.
Jenny tried to remember and finding it difficult, sat up on her elbows. “Did you come into the shop? Was that it?”
“No. Your mother was delivering a large order of pastries for a party my mother was giving. You had come along, and, when I came into the kitchen, you and I started to make a racket, banging pots with wooden spoons and saying it was music.”
Jenny fell back onto the bed laughing. “I do remember that—but only just. How ever did we become friends? It is so strange for the daughter of an Earl to make friends with a common baker.”
“That was later at the school. We were in the same class and from then on we were never apart.”
“Yes… I am so fortunate my parents put such a value on education. All of us have been to school—even though it was a huge burden for them to pay for us to go.”
“I am sorry to say my father rather frowned on us being friends though,” Helena added sadly.
“Because you were from a working family in the village,” Helena said. “He is rather a stickler for aristocratic traditions.”
“I am certainly happy you did not think that way.”
“You know I never would. Now where is that book?” Helena asked, suddenly bouncing off the bed.