Blackburn, England, April 1818
As Verity Beaumont, Duchess of Blackburn, watched her six-year-old son cuddle the baby goat, she wondered if they would soon be adding to their menagerie. She’d come here to hopefully gain a steward, not another animal. Yet, if Beau asked her, she’d be hard-pressed to say no. He was her entire world, and she was unashamed to admit it.
“He seems to have made a friend.”
Verity turned to the former steward of Beaumont Tower, Percival Entwhistle, who went by the far less formal name of Whist, and gave him a plaintive stare. “Please do not offer a new pet. I can’t support one more animal with the dogs, cats, rabbits, and most recently a squirrel we already have.”
Whist laughed and held up his hand. “I give my word, Your Grace.” He tilted his head toward the stable yard, where his grandson was dismounting from his horse. “Ah, here’s Thomas now.”
Straightening, Verity patted the back of her head. She knew Thomas well as Whist’s grandson, but saw him less often since he’d gone to work as steward at a neighboring estate. Since then, she’d seen him on a few occasions, including at last week’s assembly, and was impressed with the knowledge he’d gleaned from his grandfather and the experience of being steward the last four years. If she were honest, she was also charmed by his pleasant demeanor and his dancing ability. But since she’d been alone these past six and a half years, perhaps she was easy to charm.
After tending his horse, Thomas strode toward them, his mouth tipping into a warm smile. He swept his hat from his dark head and bowed to Verity, his lean frame bending easily. “Your Grace, it’s a pleasure to see you.”
“And you, Mr. Entwhistle.”
“Should we go inside to conduct our business?” Whist asked, gesturing toward his small cottage, which sat on the Beaumont Tower estate. Verity had provided him the home upon his retirement nearly seven years ago.
She glanced toward Beau’s nurse, who stood nearby. The nurse nodded and returned her complete focus to her charge. Verity turned to Whist and Thomas. “Yes, let’s.”
Whist motioned for her to precede him and followed her into the cottage. She took a seat in a chair that allowed her to see her son through the window. Whist and Thomas also sat, and watched her expectantly.
“I do appreciate you meeting with me today,” Verity said, feeling suddenly nervous. Though she’d been the duchess for nearly seven years, she hadn’t fully inhabited the role. The steward, Cuddy, managed the estate almost entirely without her input, and while she oversaw the household, the staff was so efficient as to make her practically unnecessary. She rarely entertained visitors, and for the most part they only supported Verity and her son. It was, overall, a simple existence and one for which Verity was grateful because it allowed her to be relatively independent. Only relatively because her father still tried to exert his influence from time to time.
He’d done a fair job of controlling things after Verity’s husband Rufus had disappeared, and Verity had endured his meddling for quite some time before asking him—firmly—to stop. She suspected, however, he still kept a hand in things because of Cuddy. Her father had referred him to Rufus when Whist had retired, and it seemed that Cuddy was still her father’s man. She could be wrong about that, but she wasn’t wrong about one thing—Cuddy wasn’t her man.
Verity straightened her spine as she glanced out at Beau chasing a rabbit in front of the cottage. Suppressing a smile, she focused on the business at hand. “I asked to meet with you both because I’d like to make a change at Beaumont Tower.”
Whist inclined his head. “And what would that be?”
“I believe it’s past time I hired my own steward—someone I’ve selected and whom I can trust to manage things as I see fit.”
“As you see…” Whist’s voice trailed off, and he coughed. “Am I to understand you wish to participate in the management of the estate?”
“I am the duchess,” she said. “And in the absence of the duke, it is my responsibility to do so. In just a handful of months, my husband will likely be legally declared dead and my son will inherit the title. I owe it to him to ensure the estate is running smoothly.”
Thomas’s brow creased with concern. “Do you have reason to believe it’s not?”
“I’m not sure. When I ask Cuddy to review the accounts with me or to inform me how the tenants are faring, he promises to do so at some indeterminate time in the future. Only, that time never comes to pass. And when I visit the tenants on my own, it’s clear Cuddy isn’t spending much time with them.”
The furrows in Thomas’s forehead deepened as he exchanged a look with his grandfather. “Have you insisted he show you the account books?”
Now she felt mildly embarrassed. “I haven’t insisted, no.”
Thomas blinked, his dark lashes sweeping briefly over his bright blue eyes. “I didn’t mean to imply you should have. I beg your pardon. I was only trying to ascertain the tone of your communications with him. He should’ve showed them to you the first time you asked.” He pressed his lips into a firm line.
Whist scoffed. “He should’ve shown them to you without your asking.” He looked at Verity with kindness and understanding. “What do you wish to do?”
“I’d like to replace him.” She gave her sole attention to the younger man across from her. “With you, Thomas.”
Whist’s mouth split into a wide grin. “That’s my boy. You’ve made an excellent decision, Your Grace.”
A bit of color bloomed in Thomas’s cheeks. “I’m… I don’t know quite what to say. Thank you for your confidence, Your Grace.”
“I know your grandfather trained you well, and while I hate to take you away from Bleven House, I need you more than they do.” She had no idea if that were true, but she did need him. Most desperately. It was past time she took control of things.
Whist angled himself toward his grandson. “You’ve done an excellent job there, but this is an incredible opportunity. Entwhistles have been stewards at Beaumont Tower for over a hundred years.”
The only reason an Entwhistle was no longer the steward was because Rufus had encouraged Whist to retire. Whist had demurred, but in the end, Rufus hadn’t given him a choice. Then, at her father’s behest, he’d installed Cuddy.
Thomas turned his humbled gaze to Verity. “I’d be honored to accept the position. Of course, I’ll need to inform my current employer, and I wouldn’t want to leave immediately.”
Whist nodded. “Certainly not. In the meantime, I can help take up the slack.” He looked to Verity. “That is, if you’d want me to.”
Verity smiled warmly as some of the tension left her shoulders. “I should like nothing more. But only if you think you’re up to it.”
He let out a soft chuckle. “I can do what needs be done while Thomas gets his affairs in order. When do you plan to let Cuddy go?”
The anxiety that had just left returned to Verity’s frame with disturbing force. She oughtn’t be afraid to exert her authority as duchess, but she was nervous about telling the man he would no longer be employed at the estate. It wasn’t just his size—and Cuddy was a towering fellow with more than a bit of brawn—but his demeanor. He was always courteous and deferential, yet Verity had never felt comfortable around him. He possessed a nervous energy that put her on edge. She assumed it was just her but now found the courage to broach the subject.
“How do you think he’ll take it?”
“In a professional manner,” Whist said. “As he should. Why, do you have reason to think he’ll behave otherwise?”
Then it was just her. But then she interacted with him far more than Whist did. “Not really,” she said, deciding not to pursue what were probably just silly concerns. She’d been isolated the last several years at Beaumont Tower, content to focus on her son. But now she was eager to break free of her constraints and exert her duty—and her power—as duchess. She owed it to her son if not herself.
Thomas gave her an earnest stare. “If Cuddy gives you any trouble, I hope you’ll let us know immediately.”
“I will, thank you.” She rose, and they stood along with her. “I’ll plan to speak with him tomorrow morning, so Thomas, if you’d like to inform your employer tomorrow, I’ll leave that up to you.”
Thomas bowed. “I am deeply honored and grateful for the opportunity to serve you and the fine estate of Beaumont Tower, Your Grace.”
“It is I who am honored and grateful,” Verity said with a smile. “Now, do stop that as I’ve never been one to appreciate obsequiousness.”
Her new steward grinned as he straightened. “I’ll endeavor to remember that.”
She liked his smile. It made her feel a bit more at ease at the coming change. “I should tell you that I plan to be very involved in the management of the estate—as involved as my husband would have been, if he were here.”
“I find that an admirable enterprise,” Thomas said with a gleam in his eye. “I will ensure you fulfill the role you desire.”
“Has it really been nearly seven years since His Grace went missing?” Whist asked.
“It will be in August, yes.” It seemed a lifetime, and she supposed it was—their son’s lifetime. Rufus had not only never met his son, he’d never even known she was expecting. He’d left for London to bow before the king and hadn’t returned.
Whist gave her a caring look that bordered on pity, something she was used to receiving and eager to cast aside. “It can’t have been easy, but soon you’ll be able to move on and let him go.”
Oh, she’d let him go quite some time ago. Not long after he’d left, if she were honest. She was certain the marriage had been orchestrated by her father. A man she loathed had wed her to a man she’d come to detest. Thankfully, she’d had to endure Rufus for only a little more than three months before he’d vanished. She’d thanked God every single day and felt absolutely horrid for it.
The mild smile she’d perfected over the past six and a half years rose effortlessly to her lips. “Thank you. I am quite eager to move on, and this sets me on that path.” She looked to Thomas. “I’ll send a note confirming the date of Cuddy’s departure.”
Thomas nodded. “May I walk you out?”
The trio left Whist’s cottage, and Beau ran directly into Verity’s skirts. “Mama, can we take the baby goat home?”
She widened her eyes at Whist in silent appeal.
The former steward coughed. “I’m afraid not.”
Thomas squatted down to Beau’s level. “If you took her with you, she and her mother would be very sad. It would be like you leaving your mother. You wouldn’t wish to do that, would you?”
Beau looked up at Verity, his green eyes wide. “No, I wouldn’t wish that at all.” His hand found hers, and she gave his fingers a squeeze.
The boy snapped his head back to Thomas. “Then her mama will come with us too.”
Thomas was quiet a moment, his expression thoughtful as he contemplated Beau’s earnest face. “That would certainly solve one problem, but I believe it would create another.” He glanced toward Whist. “You see, these are my Grandpapa’s goats, and he loves them dearly. He would be sad if they left. Perhaps you could come visit them?”
Beau expelled a breath and looked longingly toward the goat pen. “I could.” He turned his gaze to Verity. “Can I, Mama?”
“Of course.” And because her son could melt her heart like no other, she said, “Perhaps we should consider keeping a goat herd closer to the castle. Then you could help tend the babies.”
Beau’s eyes lit, and his mouth spread into a wide, gleeful smile. “Oh yes! Let’s make Cuddy do that right away.”
Verity laughed at his excitement while at the same time delighting in the fact that she soon wouldn’t have to “make Cuddy” do anything except leave. And she hoped that would occur without upset. “I will make sure it happens, my dear.” She looked down at Thomas, who gave her a firm nod.
Her new steward grinned at Beau. “It seems we’ve come to an excellent conclusion for everyone.”
Beau nodded. “Thank you for helping me solve this problem. Mama says solving problems is one of the most important things we must learn.”
Thomas tipped his face up to Verity. “Your mama is right, and what a lucky boy you are to have her.” His gaze was warm with respect and perhaps something else that made Verity think of him in a different light—as a gentleman and not just her new employee. Well, that wouldn’t do.
Before she could say it was time to go, Beau asked, “Where is your mama, Thomas?”
“Oh, she died some time ago.” His voice held just a tinge of sadness.
“My papa might be dead,” Beau said rather matter-of-factly. “But I think he’ll come home someday.” He leaned close to Thomas and lowered his voice to what he probably thought was a whisper but that was barely below a regular speaking tone. “I think he was kidnapped. Someday when I am big, I will rescue him and bring him home.”
It was moments like these that pulled at Verity’s emotions. She’d never even hinted that Beau’s father had been awful, and the staff hadn’t either. They had to have been cognizant of the cruelty he’d heaped on Verity, but they’d never openly discussed it. She could only imagine the type of father he would have been to Beau. That was the primary reason she was grateful he was gone—she would have hated to see him mistreat her son. In fact, she wasn’t sure she could’ve borne it.
So while she appreciated Beau’s need to romanticize his father, she remained somewhat neutral. Only in the last year or so had she begun to prepare Beau for the probability that his father wouldn’t return. Soon she would have to explain that Rufus was dead and that he—Beau—would be the duke. That wasn’t a conversation she looked forward to.
“I have no doubt you will rescue him,” Thomas said solemnly. “And how fortunate your father is to have you as his champion.”
Beau let go of Verity’s hand to put his hands on his hips. “Yes, I am his champion. Like a knight! I like to play knights.”
Thomas chuckled. “I do too. Do you have a wooden sword?”
Beau gave Verity a rather mutinous look. “No. Mama won’t let me have one because I kept running through the drawing room with it.”
“Well, we must listen to our mothers.” Thomas gave her an apologetic nod.
It was past time to save the gracious Thomas from her son. Verity couldn’t help but be impressed with how he’d interacted with Beau, and she looked forward to having him on the estate. Perhaps he would be able to provide Beau with some of the fatherly direction he was lacking. “Come, Beau, we should be on our way. It’s nearly time for your luncheon and then afternoon lessons with Mr. Deacon.”
His nurse moved toward the coach and nodded toward the door. “Come along then, your lordship.”
Beau waved to the Entwhistles. “Good-bye!” He lingered briefly at the goat pen before clambering into the coach with the nurse’s help.
Verity turned to Thomas, who’d risen to his normal height, which was a bit taller than her five feet seven inches. “Thank you for your kindness to my son. I daresay he will enjoy having you on the estate.”
“It will be a pleasure. He’s a charming boy.”
“In need of a fatherly figure,” Whist put in as he looked between them with a half smile.
Thomas threw his grandfather a scandalized look. “I wouldn’t dare to presume.”
“Your grandfather vocalized what I’d been thinking,” Verity said. “Beau is in need of someone to show him some things, such as how to care for a baby goat. Several members of my staff assist however they can.” She thought of her butler, Kirwin, who doted on Beau. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that part of your job will likely include instructing Beau in the ways of the estate.” She’d mentioned this to Cuddy when Beau had turned six in January and she’d hired his tutor, Mr. Deacon, but the steward had done what he always did—put her off.
“I would be honored to teach him,” Thomas said. “And as you know, I learned from the very best.” He shot a smile toward his grandfather, who laughed before moving forward to clap his grandson on the back.
“You were an easy student, my boy. Truly, Your Grace, the estate won’t be in better hands.”
“I think so too.” She nodded toward them. “I’ll see you both soon.”
She went to the coach, where the coachman helped her inside, and a moment later, they were on their way.
Beau scooted close to her side, his warm body tucked against hers. “Mama, can I come back to visit the goats tomorrow?”
“I don’t know about tomorrow, but soon. And I will see about having a goat herd closer to the house.”
“That will be ever so nice,” Beau said with a sigh. “I’m going to be a good duke someday, Mama, because I will know how to care for all the animals and all the people at Beaumont Tower.”
She dropped a kiss on his head, inhaling the sweet scent of boy. “Yes, you will. You’ll be the best duke Beaumont Tower has ever known.”
The castle—Beaumont Tower itself—was situated on a hill with lower and upper courtyards, both of which were ringed by the castle proper. The main part of the castle that contained their living quarters encircled the upper courtyard. It had been a medieval stronghold and had since undergone several refurbishments in an effort to modernize. It was large and drafty and beautiful. To her, it was home.
A few minutes later, the coach drove through the entrance tower and into the lower courtyard, where it stopped at the base of the steps that led to the upper half of the castle. They stepped down, and Verity leaned down to hug and kiss Beau. “I’ll see you after lessons.”
“But first to luncheon,” the nurse said. “I am famished! Shall we race upstairs? Carefully,” she added, with a glance toward Verity.
Beau was already tearing off toward the upper gateway of the castle. “Try to catch me!”
Verity smiled after them as the spring sun warmed her head and shoulders. Closing her eyes, she tipped her head up to the sky and let the rays wash over her, basking her in the promise of a new beginning.
Ever since her dear cousin Diana had come to visit five months ago, Verity had been unsettled. Diana had come with her husband, though they hadn’t yet been wed—Verity had the pleasure of attending their wedding at Gretna Green. It had been the most romantic event she’d ever beheld. Their love and passion for each other was palpable, and Verity couldn’t have been happier for her favorite person.
And yet, it had only served to inform her that she was lonely, that she was without love or passion. Oh, she had Beau, and for him, she would be eternally grateful. For six years, she’d convinced herself that she didn’t need anything more. Until she’d realized she did.
Perhaps she wouldn’t find love or passion, but she would take charge, and she would make it possible for herself to find those things, if she were lucky. But she’d already been lucky, she reminded herself. She had Beau, and she didn’t have Rufus. Fate had been quite kind, and she really had no reason to complain.
Not that she was complaining… She shook her head as she walked up the steps to the wide path and veered to the right side of the garden that flanked both sides of the stone walkway. How she loved the gardens—three of them—at Beaumont Tower. These were the places where she’d reigned, and they never failed to buoy her spirits. She searched now for the courage she needed to take the next step, to let Cuddy go and get Beau used to the idea that his father wouldn’t be coming home.
She had leaned down to smell the budding bloom of her favorite rose when the sound of a horse coming into the courtyard drew her to turn her head. The lone rider was large, broad shouldered, with a hat that shielded his face.
Verity walked back to the path and retraced her footsteps to the stairs. The rider steered the horse to the base of the steps and swung himself from the animal’s back. The hair on Verity’s neck stood up, and the warm spring day turned suddenly cold.
The man put one foot on the first step as he swept his hat from his head. Faint recognition was quickly chased by dread as his gaze found hers.