Miss Bridget Kelly
10 Henry Street
October 20, 1815
Dear Miss Kelly,
I write this letter with a heavy heart. Before your brother’s untimely passing, I had the pleasure of speaking with him at great length about you. Mr. Kelly always spoke fondly of you. He was quite devoted to you and your happiness. My family will never be able to repay your brother for his selfless act of heroism, but I know he would rest easier if he knew you were under my care.
Please accept the enclosed funds for your fare from Dublin to London. Please book your passage as soon as it is convenient for you. I very much look forward to making your acquaintance.
Cordelia, Countess of Clayworth
Clayworth House, London
Clayworth House, Mayfair – December 1815
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“Deliveries are ‘round the back.” The stoic butler looked down his slightly hooked nose at Miss Bridget Kelly.
Did it look like she was delivering something? Bridget gulped and griped her portmanteau tighter in her hands. “I’ve come at Lady Clayworth’s invitation. I think she means to offer me employment.” Which Bridget could desperately use. After Sean’s death, money had been scarce and Bridget had become more than a burden to her already struggling uncle and cousins.
The butler’s brow rose in surprise. “Her ladyship means to offer you employment?”
He didn’t need to sound so skeptical about it. Bridget could mend and sew and cook better than any of her cousins. “If you’d just let me see Lady Clayworth.” Bridget reached into her pocket to retrieve the countess’ letter.
“Lord and Lady Clayworth are in the country, miss.”
The country? Aililiú!
He started to shut the door, and would have done so if Bridget hadn’t dropped her portmanteau over the threshold, blocking the door from closing. “Perhaps they’ll have work for you when they return to Town in the spring.”
In the spring? Bridget couldn’t possibly wait that long. She shook her head. “But her ladyship sent for me.”
The butler frowned as he kicked at her portmanteau. “Then perhaps she wanted to offer you work in Derbyshire, though that seems just as unlikely.”
But the letter had said London. Of course, Bridget had been detained in leaving Dublin. Cousin Kevin had taken ill, and she hadn’t felt right about leaving Uncle Cormac with the child until he was back on his little feet. But now here she was in London, all alone, without a friend in the world. Finally, Bridget nodded. “Derbyshire, then. Very well.”
“Very well?” he echoed as though she’d lost her mind. “Miss, I’m certain you can find work in London, even if you are Irish. There’s no need to go to Derbyshire.”
“But Lady Clayworth sent for me,” she stressed, ignoring the slight to her nationality. After all, no one she’d met in London had been terribly friendly once she opened her mouth and they realized she wasn’t one of them. There was no point in getting angry about it now. She needed every bit of help she could get from the butler, though he didn’t seem terribly eager to give it. “How should I get to Derbyshire, sir?”
He looked her up and down, most likely taking in her threadbare dress and ragged shawl, then said rather arrogantly, “I’d suggest the mail coach if you insist on going.”
She might be able to afford the mail coach. She did still have a few coins left to her name. If she didn’t spend any of it on food, she could manage a few days. Besides, what other choice did she have? She couldn’t stay in London. She didn’t have a roof to put over her head here. And she didn’t have enough to go back to Dublin. Derbyshire it would have to be. “Which stop?” she asked as she retrieved her portmanteau. “To where her ladyship is in Derbyshire? Which stop?”
“The family seat to the Earl of Clayworth is Bayhurst Court. The town of Bakewell is not far, though I’ve never been there myself. Good luck to you, miss.” And then the man promptly shut the door in Bridget’s face.
She turned on her heel, pulled her wrap tighter about her arms, and clutched her mother’s old portmanteau to her chest as she descended the steps of Clayworth House. A coachman driving down Hertford Street glanced at her as he drove past, frowning as though she was the lowest form of gutter trash littering the pristine walk with her mere presence. Bridget hastened her pace toward Park Lane, anxious to find her way back to a less ostentatious area of London, some place coachmen and butlers wouldn’t look down on her, some place someone might take pity on her and actually be of help.
She gestured for a hack, and three passed her by before one finally stopped. “I need to go to the closest coachin’ inn.”
“Get in, mum.”
“How much will it cost?” She needed to know upfront as she had so very little left, and she still needed to purchase her fare to Derbyshire once she arrived at the inn.
“Agh.” The driver sneered. “If ye can’t afford it, ye can’t afford it.” Then he urged his bay forward, leaving Bridget alone once more.
He was probably right. Though it would have been nice if he’d at least pointed her in the right direction.
“Ye need to get to a coachin’ inn?” A little urchin sitting on the edge of the road scrambled to his feet. Bridget hadn’t even noticed the lad until he spoke.
“Aye.” She nodded, relieved to receive whatever help she could get, even if it did come in such a small package. “Do you know the way?”
“This way.” The child gestured toward Picadilly. “I’ll show ye.”
Bridget sent up a silent prayer of thanks to Saint Christopher for sending a traveling guide to her when she most needed one.
* * *
Rufford Hall, Nottinghamshire
Captain Russell Avery stared into his whisky glass. He’d lost count of the times he’d emptied it this evening, but he was about to do so again. And maybe once more after that.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” His oldest brother Gregory, Baron Avery, asked as he dropped into an over-stuffed leather chair in between Russell and a slowly dying fire in the hearth.
“I’ve had enough of people asking me that question,” Russell grumbled. Or at least that’s what he meant to say. He was slightly foxed, and some of the words might have rearranged themselves when they escaped his mouth. He wasn’t entirely sure.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Greg asked.
His oldest brother had certainly picked a fine time to want to talk about it. After all, Russell’s tongue felt a bit too big for his mouth in his present condition. Besides, talking about it would not change a thing. The fact remained that their younger brother had run off with Russell’s fiancée, and no amount of talking about it would make the situation more palatable.
Greg kicked his long legs out in front of him. “Cordie says you’ll head to Bayhurst Court with her at the end of the week.”
Yes, so their baby sister could try to make things better for him. She’d fail at that, but Russell hadn’t had the heart to tell her so. Besides, he had to go somewhere and he’d rather not stay at Rufford Hall, surrounded by all the memories of his and his brothers’ formative years together. Before Tristan’s betrayal. And he’d rather not go back to London where he and Tristan had lived side by side since their return from the battlefields. Not right now at any rate. “Since you already know everything, there’s no reason to talk to you.”
“No reason except you’re my brother and I’m worried about you.”
“I’ve been through worse.”
Greg heaved a beleaguered sigh. “You’ve been given a second chance, Russ. Next time you should probably love the girl you ask to marry you.”
So that it would hurt even worse when she ran off with another fellow? Russell slowly turned his head, glaring at his older brother with all the fury of their once-great Saxon ancestors. “If you tell me that I’m better off because Tristan stole Phoebe from me, I’ll crack that poker right over your head.”
“You are an irritable drunk,” Greg said calmly, damn him.
Russell would much rather yell at Greg, spar with him, or even better convince Greg to loathe Tristan as much as Russell did at the moment. Greg’s calm façade was a bloody nuisance. “I told you I didn’t want to talk about it.”
“But not talking about it won’t make it go away. If it’s any consolation, I do believe he’s desperately in love with her.”
It was no consolation, no matter that Russell was not and never had been desperately in love with her. Honestly, he hadn’t even been a little in love with her at any time during their courtship. But that was all irrelevant. “Don’t expect me to forgive his betrayal, Greg. If that’s what you’re getting at, you can save your breath.”
“He’s our brother.”
“Not mine,” Russell growled. “Not any more.”
Greg sighed again, which was quite irritating now that Russell thought about it. “I just wish you could find some peace, Russ.”
But the only peace, the only heaven Russell had ever experienced was between one woman’s legs or another. Actually, that idea had merit, now that he thought about it. A few coins would buy him a bit of peace, which was sorely needed at the moment. He pushed out of his chair and wobbled slightly until he found his balance.
“Where are you going?”
“Somewhere no one wants talk to me.” And with that, Russell strode from the sitting room, leaving his brother all alone.