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Love Lost (Clean and Wholesome Regency Romance): Grace (The Stainton Sisters Book 3) by Amy Corwin (1)

Chapter One

1831, London

Her face felt numb, her pleased smile freezing in place as Grace read Martha’s letter again. Was it too late already? Her sister had written it well over a week ago—why hadn’t Grace seen it sooner?

She could feel her oldest sister Dorothy’s sympathetic gaze fixed on her, and Grace turned away, unable to bear it. Dorothy knew—she’d already read Martha’s letter—and Grace found her pity unbearable. Her hands clenched in her lap, crinkling the edges of the missive. If only Dorothy had given it to her earlier—better yet, had left it at the Polkinghorne’s house for Grace to read in private first. Then Grace would be the only one to know, other than Martha, of course.

But Dorothy had tucked it in her pocket on her way from the Polkinghorne’s townhouse to her new home after her marriage. She said she hadn’t remembered it until today.

If only she’d forgotten it completely. Or absentmindedly tossed it into the fire.

Grace flicked a sidelong glance at her sister. Her mouth tightened at the concerned look on Dorothy’s face.

“I am so sorry, Grace.” Dorothy stepped closer to Grace’s chair and gave her shoulder a squeeze. “I know you loved him—”

Grace sprang to her feet, twisting the letter into a knot. She almost flicked it into the fireplace before she realized there was no cheerful fire to consume it. Why would there be? It was July and quite warm enough without the crackling heat of flames. A bead of perspiration trickled over her forehead, and she wiped it off with her wrist. Her nervous hands then twisted the paper more tightly as she moved to the mantle. She shoved the paper into the small white jar containing spills for lighting the fire and turned back to Dorothy.

Grace fixed her smile more firmly on her mouth and even managed a tiny, strangled laugh, striving to appear unconcerned. “Why? It was a childish infatuation, no more than that.” Her chin rose. “I am pleased that Mr. Blyth has found a congenial lady to marry.” And wealthier, too. Much wealthier.

Of course, Mr. Blyth didn’t know that Grace was due to inherit five thousand pounds, either. A flicker of hope warmed her aching heart. Maybe it wasn’t too late, after all. If she could only see him, talk to him…

Dorothy’s astute gaze never left her face. She saw—and must have guessed—too much, much more than Grace could bear. “The pain will diminish, I promise you,” Dorothy said, stretching out one hand.

Stepping aside, Grace turned and stared out of the window. “Pain? I have no notion to what you are referring, Dorothy. There is no need for this maudlin sympathy. As I said, I am glad that Mr. Blyth is to be married at last and will soon be going to a new living near Folkstone. They will be very happy, I am sure. I wish them all the best.”

Dorothy sighed. “I wish you would come to live at Arundell House with me. We would be so pleased to have you.”

“Aunt Mary has need of me, now. It has been difficult ever since…” Grace raised her hands in a helpless gesture.

They both knew how matters stood in the Polkinghorne household. Uncle Cyril had confessed to murdering the previous Lord and Lady Arundell and then, rather than face the hangman, he’d shot himself. A sense of disbelief still hung over Grace whenever she was reminded of it.

Although the appalling situation had been hushed up by claiming that Uncle Cyril’s death had been a tragic accident, none of the Polkinghornes had had the courage to set foot out of the house since that awful night. Grace had done a great many errands and even some shopping for them, hoping her aunt and cousins would gradually return to normal.

In the meantime, a wreath draped with black hung on the door and an abnormal silence filled the townhouse. Grace’s cousins ate in their rooms, if they ate at all, and she hadn’t seen her aunt for the past two days.

Which left Grace to receive callers and accept murmured words of condolence while enduring the avid curiosity burning in the eyes of the guests. The thought of escape, of joining Dorothy and her new husband, Lord Arundell, was tempting, but her sense of duty and concern for her cousins kept her here.

Until now.

“I understand, Grace. It is good of you to remain,” Dorothy said. “I just hope Cousin Stephen hasn’t been pestering you.”

“No. I have scarcely seen him since that night. And he will be returning to university very soon, I imagine.”

“Not soon enough,” Dorothy muttered.

A smile of true amusement flitted over Grace’s face. She couldn’t deny that Stephen was besotted with her. He’d made an undeniable nuisance of himself before the death of his father and seemed likely to continue following her like a duckling flapping after his mother. Somehow, she thought that recent events might have matured her seventeen-year-old cousin, but so far, he’d only been more morose and set on pressing his suit. Of course, she’d only seen him twice since his father’s death, so maybe she was being unfair.

“No. I wish he could return sooner.” She threw up her hands and glanced at the window, yearning to be free of the grief-stricken household. “Everyone has changed a great deal, Dorothy, and I am not sure it will be for the better.”

Dorothy flicked a discreet glance at the clock on the fireplace mantle. A frown puckered her brow. “My darling Grace, I’m so sorry. I hate to go…”

“But you must. I understand.” Grace moved closer to give her sister a hug and a brief kiss on the cheek. “You are still a bride, after all. How is Arundell’s niece doing? Is Cynthia quite recovered?”

“Well, that is the difficulty, you see. Cynthia does not like it when I leave her alone, and I promised I would be gone no more than half an hour,” Dorothy answered ruefully. She looked at the clock again. “I am late already, and she will be worrying.”

After witnessing the murder of her parents, escaping, and then striving to live hand-to-mouth on the shadowy streets of London, Arundell’s little niece, Cynthia, clung to Dorothy. The girl’s desperation to grip Dorothy’s hand, seeking reassurance throughout the day, had not lessened since they’d rescued the child.

They all hoped that, over time, Cynthia would regain her smiling confidence. However, for now, Dorothy did her best to comfort the child and stay with her.

“Why did you not bring her?” Grace asked.

Her sister’s eyes darkened. A brief frown creased her lips. “After reading Martha’s letter… Well, I thought it would be best if we were alone when you read it.”

“There was no need, I assure you.” Grace smiled, though her throat felt tight and hot tears stung her eyes. She coughed and swallowed before catching Dorothy’s gaze. “I am quite well. There is no need to worry.”

Dorothy seemed reluctant to believe her, but Grace finally got rid of her. Relieved, she stood in the doorway and watched as the carriage with the Arundell coat of arms clattered away. Her shoulders sagged. She let out a long breath and closed the door. Both of her sisters had found their hearts’ desire, but what about her? Her hand shook, and she frowned before clasping her hands at her waist. She was not some weak-willed miss who crumpled to the ground at the first difficulty.

But Mr. Blyth was getting married! To the wealthy heiress, Lady Lenora Anderson. Even Grace’s anticipated inheritance of five thousand pounds was paltry in comparison to what that lady would bring with her when she married.

Grace glanced up at the grand staircase. She listened for a moment before wearily climbing the stairs to the small sitting room on the first floor. No one used the dismal little room, so it was a fine and private place to do some thinking.

Her mouth twisted. No doubt Dorothy believed Grace would seek out a large wardrobe in which to hide and cry. Part of her considered such an action wistfully. She always felt so safe with the wooden walls cradling her shoulders and the faint odors of lavender and sunshine from the clothing filling the space. And in the deepest corner of her heart, she’d always hoped that one day, she’d have children she could hug and comfort, her arms replacing what she’d always sought within the confines of a wardrobe.

However, since the death of her father, Grace had not sought the reassurance of wooden walls cradling her. She was too old for such a childish habit, and she had no need to do so now when the entire Polkinghorne house seemed deserted. It had been at least a day since she’d seen any of her cousins. The only reason she knew they still lived there was the occasional faint tinkle of a bell when one of them wished the maid, Elsa, to bring them a cup of tea.

Her thoughts returned to Martha’s letter.

Was it really too late? Could Mr. Blyth truly have forgotten her so easily? If only she could see him again and speak to him… As Grace took a seat near the single window in the sitting room, she shook her head.

If only… Her breath caught in her chest with a flicker of hope. If she could see him again and talk to him, anything was possible. Surely, once he set eyes upon her, his old feelings for her would return. He would realize how much he cared for her and what a foolish mistake it would be to marry Lady Lenora, no matter how rich she might be.

Grace straightened, her hands clutching the padded arms of her chair. Why not? Why not return to Kendle and see him? If he truly loved Lady Lenora, well, she could not alter that, and she would accept his decision. But if he did not, it might not be too late. And no one would miss her.

Dorothy would assume Grace was still living with the Polkinghornes. Dorothy was too distracted by her new husband and his niece to worry overmuch about Grace.

And the Polkinghornes were too consumed by their grief to notice Grace’s absence. Aunt Mary might even be relieved to be rid of her. However, to avoid any undue concern, Grace would leave a note for her aunt, explaining that she’d gone to visit her sister. It would only be the truth, since she hoped to stay with Martha in Kendle. No one could object to that, and the plain truth was that Grace doubted anyone would care enough to wonder about her.

If anyone did ask, Grace could simply tell them that she missed Martha and wished to visit her. That was also true. Grace did miss Martha’s common sense and acerbic wit. Martha was living at Widow Willow’s cottage until her marriage, and while the cottage might be small, Martha and Grace could certainly share a bed for a few days.

All she needed was to see Mr. Blyth’s kind face again and discover if he had truly abandoned his love for her or if there was still hope for the two of them. Her heart skipped a beat, and she bit her lower lip. Should she tell him that she was no longer penniless? If he knew about her inheritance… Her fingers tightened again on the chair’s arms.

No. That was one thing she would not tell him, at least not until she absolutely had to do so. If he loved her, let it be for herself, alone, and not for her five thousand pounds.

She shifted uneasily, her hem twisting around her ankles until she could scarcely move. She bent and pulled her skirt out and arranged the long folds more neatly.

Surely, Mr. Blyth was not so mercenary. He did love her—she was sure of that. Or almost sure. She moved again uneasily. Recently, a wretched little whisper had begun speaking to her long after midnight, as she tossed and turned in bed. She had never received any answer to her letters. The sly little voice murmured that Mr. Blyth could not remain a curate forever, that he needed to acquire a living of his own in a prosperous parish, and that he required funds and social connections to do so.

When Grace had left Kendle, she could offer him nothing beyond her devotion and love. Lady Lenora could offer him a great deal more.

But now, Grace could, as well. She had—or soon would have—five thousand, and she had one sister married to an earl and another soon to be married to a baron. Notable social connections, indeed. Just the splendid sort of relatives that would appeal to even the most ambitious curate.

Her heart fluttered again in protest. She pressed a hand against her chest, determined not to be a cynic. Did it really matter that Lady Lenora had so much and Grace had so little? Material things were not really so important, were they? Wasn’t love worth more than any amount of money or social connections?

Certainly, and she had no doubt that Mr. Blyth would agree. He’d simply been blinded by Lady Lenora and would come to his senses when he saw Grace again. She merely needed to speak to him to prevent him from making a horrible mistake.

None of this would have happened if she hadn’t deserted him and gone to London.

Therefore, a brief trip back to Kendle was necessary. She looked around the small, overcrowded sitting room, making plans. It was already Wednesday. She stood.

Farmer Cavell often came to London on Thursdays to bring his brother fresh produce. He had brought the Stainton sisters, as well, over a month ago. Surely, he’d have no objection in reversing the process and driving Grace back to Kendle.

She smoothed the wrinkles out of her skirt and walked to the door with a firm step. She had packing to do.

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