The Viscount's Wallflower
The Viscount's Wallflower
1820, Templeton House, Buckinghamshire
“Please do try and eat something, Jessica. You’ve barely touched your breakfast.”
Lady Jessica Bourne-Meade had spent the entirety of breakfast so far staring down at the letter her little sister had written to her, and her breakfast had gone cold in the meantime. She was fairly sure that trying to eat anything at that moment would result in her vomiting it back up onto the table.
That would probably kill her prim and proper grandmother. Edith Robertson, the Dowager Countess of Wycke, had recently moved to be closer to Jessica, which was, quite frankly, a gesture of tremendous proportions.
“I’ve just received a letter from Maria, Grandmother,” Jessica said. “She has arrived at her new school and, apparently, the place is less than pleasant. It’s upsetting. I feel a little faint actually.”
The dowager, despite being a frail, aged lady, was not the sort of woman who fainted or approved of fainting in others. Her forehead wrinkles led in a brief frown, another sign she was extremely affected.
“Does she make any mention of my request for Maria and Jon to come here?” the dowager asked. “Your aunt must have received my letter by now.”
Jessica gave a harsh laugh. “You might as well have saved your paper and ink, Grandmother. My dear Aunt Virginia and Uncle Martin would never let Jon fall into your hands. He might grow up to be a free-thinking young man who would not permit them to dip into his purse whenever they chose.”
The dowager made a weak noise of disapproval, but Jessica could tell her heart wasn’t in it. “That money is for when Jon becomes of age. I am sure your uncle would not dream of touching it.”
Jessica did not bother to argue. They both knew that Martin Bourne, their father’s brother, and his spendthrift wife, had been buying new things at an impressive rate. They had barely waited for the funeral to be over before they were moving themselves and their things into Lansdowne House.
They were already in half-mourning by the time they had arrived, and Jessica had known then and there that she would never forgive them.
“How dare you,” Jessica had demanded, fists clenched by her sides, face pale and still streaked with tears. “My mother is dead, barely cold in the ground, and you are already helping yourself to her jewels!”.
Lady Virginia Meade barely glanced at Jessica; her eyes were firmly fixed on a beautiful ruby necklace. She held it up to her scrawny neck, inspecting the results in the gilt mirror.
“They are not Lady Caroline’s jewels,” she answered absently. “They never were. They belonged to my dear late brother-in-law, and now they belong to sweet little Jon. At least, they will when he is older. For now, they are Martin’s—not Caro’s, not yours, but Martin’s. And by extension, then, mine.”
Jessica gave herself a little shake to get rid of the unpleasant memory. She hated her Aunt Virginia with a passion.
Although, if their parting words to her were to be believed, they were not her aunt and uncle at all. Uncle Martin had been rather clear on that point.
He was the guardian of Jon and Maria, who were his nephew and niece, after all. Jessica, on the other hand, was not the daughter of the Earl of Lansdowne, Uncle Martin’s older brother. She was merely his stepdaughter. Uncle Martin had announced gleefully that as there was “no blood between them,” he did not have any obligation to her at all, and she would oblige them by packing her things and moving out of Lansdowne House by the end of the week. He would care for her siblings from now on.
So, less than a week after her mother’s sudden death, Jessica had found herself rattling along in a carriage en-route to Buckinghamshire to her grandmother’s home. Thank heavens for Templeton House.
Aunt Virginia had wasted no time in packing Jon and Maria off to separate schools, the cheapest money could buy, and she and her wretched husband set about running the Bourne estate into the ground and spending Jon’s money. Jessica had never been consumed with rage before, but now she was, and it was very unpleasant.
“Jessica” Lady Wycke’s voice broke into Jessica’s less-than-charitable thoughts, most of which involved smashing a vase over her uncle’s head. “Your breakfast. If you say you are not hungry again, I will be very unhappy.”
Jessica wilted under her grandmother’s steely glare. “I really have no appetite.”
“You had no appetite at supper yesterday, or at dinner, or at luncheon. You must eat, my dear. You are losing weight, and, much as I hate to say it, all this black is doing your looks no favours.”
“I don’t wish to come out of mourning yet.”
“Of course not, of course not. I just mean that you are looking very ill lately, my dear, and I am worried for your health.”
Jessica lifted a fork, half-heartedly pushing at her lukewarm scrambled eggs.
The dining room itself didn’t exactly lend itself to cosy mealtimes. Lady Wycke loved beauty and grandeur and Templeton House reflected that. The dining room was huge, with a long, well-polished table spanning the length of the room. The ceilings swooped up high above their heads, embellished with carvings and designs that one could scarcely see from down below.
Severe-looking portraits of long-dead relatives stared accusingly down from the walls, watching as unfortunate guests tried to eat.
The dining room was always cold, despite the roaring fires Lady Wycke, the dowager, insisted on in every room. There was simply too much space to keep it warm.
“I miss them,” Jessica finally admitted. Lady Wycke nodded, swallowing hard.
It was a consolation to be able to grieve with her grandmother. Lady Wycke had lost her beloved daughter-in-law and had her two youngest grandchildren, Jon and Maria, whisked away from her, to be firmly told that her letters would not be passed on to them at school. She had seen her eldest granddaughter slighted, demeaned, and all but thrown out of her family home. It was a difficult set of events for a woman of her age to cope with.
She wore black for Jessica’s mother, Caroline Meade, the late Countess of Lansdowne, as did Jessica. Since Lady Virginia had wasted no time in taking down all of portraits of the late countess at Lansdowne House but refused to let Jessica keep them, she felt rather as if their mourning period was a final farewell to her mother’s memory.
On that unpleasant and miserable thought, Jessica attempted to swallow a mouthful of scrambled eggs, which naturally stuck in her throat.
“I miss them,” she whispered. “Jon and Maria. Maria writes in her letter that she was only able to send this to me by asking one of the older girls at her school to post it. She didn’t know whether I would be here or not. Uncle Henry and Aunt Virginia would not tell them where I had gone. They don’t reply to any of her letters or notes. She feels quite alone.”
The dowager nodded. She didn’t look surprised. “Now, let me be frank, Jessica. I believe we have a good chance of Jon and Maria being allowed to spend their holidays here. I can’t imagine the wretched Henry and his awful wife will want the children around. Let Henry have his fun for now—let him exercise his newfound authority. He will tire of it, mark my words. I suspect they will be rather grateful to get the children out from under their feet during holidays. After that, we must put our plan into action.”
Jessica arched an eyebrow. “Our plan?”
“You will recall the clause in your stepfather’s will which allows you to take guardianship of your little brother and sister.”
“Only if I am married. I don’t . . .” Jessica hesitated, biting her lip. Was she being selfish? “I don’t wish to marry unless I am in love.”
“Understandable. Still, this is a good incentive for you to begin looking, isn’t it?” The dowager’s eyes lit up. She loved a good scheme, and Jessica was beginning to feel rather swept away by the idea of her grandmother’s Grand Plan. “Now, eat up, my dear. You don’t want Maria and Jon to come home and see their adored older sister faded away to a ghost, do you?”
Jessica shook her head and obediently shovelled another mouthful of eggs into her mouth. They barely tasted anything, but she chewed and swallowed.
Thanks to Maria’s letter, she had her sister’s address, at least. That was something. She could write to her as often as she liked now. In fact, she could write and send a letter right after breakfast. She glanced up at her grandmother as she ate, feeling a pang of conscience. Lady Wycke had had a nasty shock recently too, but she wasn’t refusing to eat and starting to fade away. Jessica guiltily thought she must have caused her poor grandmother a lot of worry over the past three months. She would have to be more considerate in the future.
“Since we are now in half mourning,” Lady Wycke continued, “a few invitations are starting to trickle in. A nice, elegant ball is the just the thing to rouse you from your melancholy mood.”
Jessica privately thought a ball was the very last thing to make her feel better, but she wisely kept her opinions to herself.
“If you think so, Grandmother.”
“I have taken the liberty of accepting a few choice invitations,” Lady Wycke explained. “I think you’ll enjoy them excessively. It will take your mind off poor Jon and Maria. And, who knows—you may meet a suitable young man and will soon be in a position to take guardianship of your siblings yourself.”
Jessica had ranted at length to whoever would listen at how unfair the law was, requiring her to find a husband before taking charge of her own siblings. But of course, ranting changed nothing. She was only eight-and-ten, and she remained stubbornly unmarried.
Jessica could not imagine meeting a man who would change her mind about that.
“I . . . I would like to get out of the house,” Jessica admitted. “Not that I am not grateful for your hospitality, Grandmother,” she added hastily. “It’s just . . . well, everywhere I look, there’s some memory of Father. It’s like living in a house with a stranger, but of course, not a stranger.”
The dowager nodded, some of the light dying out of her eyes. Jessica wished she hadn’t brought it up. It was, after all, her grandmother’s son who had never come home that she referred to.
“It’s a pity you never knew him,” the dowager said after a moment or two of tense silence. “You were—let me see—three years old when he died? I suppose you have hardly any memories of him at all. He would have been a good father. You were a lucky girl, you know, with two good fathers.” Lady Wycke added, with a forced attempt at a joke. “Your mother married a good man after my son. Still, all the more reason for you—and me—to get out of this house.”
Jessica chewed the inside of her cheek. She remembered how much her mother had hated the habit and stopped. “I don’t know, Grandmother.”
“You might meet a nice young man. At the very least, you need a change. Now, I’m not asking you to agree to rush out after breakfast for a day out in town, but will you please think about it, my dear?”
Jessica smiled at her grandmother. She could promise to think about it, at least. It wasn’t much, and her grandmother had been excessively kind to her. Jessica knew she hadn’t been good company for the past few months. She had snapped at everyone, ranted and cried, yet her grandmother had never uttered one word of reproach.
She had no intention of seeking out some suitable young man, but perhaps a little dancing and company would do her good.
“Of course, I will think about it, Grandmother, she promised.
That Same Day,
“Ah, Jack! There you are. Come on in.”
Jack briefly considered pretending he hadn’t heard his mother’s summons and making a run for it, but he decided it would be too cowardly.
Besides, it would only forestall the inevitable. Athelstone Manor was an ancient, sprawling place with plenty of hidey-holes, but none of them would keep him safe from the indomitable Lady Fenella Deeping for too long.
Jack shuffled into the drawing room, feeling, and no doubt looking, like a little boy again, getting chastised for falling out of a tree he was not meant to have climbed.
Fenella Deeping, The Duchess of Meadowshire, had been much older than most Society ladies at the time of her marriage, though she kept her exact age a carefully guarded secret. It had been some years before her son, Jack, was born, and a few more years still before little Cecilia followed.
As a result, Her Grace was considerably older than one would expect of a woman with a grown-up son not yet married and a daughter just about to come out. The crueller of Society’s gossips claimed she was well past fifty, which was nothing short of madness. The poor woman didn’t even have grandchildren yet.
Jack sank into the chair his mother gestured to and accepted a cup of tea. This room, the drawing room, was his mother’s domain. At least, that’s what she said, loudly, and at length, to anyone who would listen. The truth was that the whole house was Her Grace’s domain, with the mild-mannered Edward Deeping, Duke of Meadowshire, retiring to his study and his books, quite content to let his wife have the run of the house.
The drawing room was exquisitely decorated. No one could fault the duchess’s taste, although her habit of saying exactly what was on her mind had made her plenty of enemies in what she called Discerning Society—whatever that meant.
Jack found himself longing for Athelstone Lodge, the smaller and much more functional little manor house he lived in by himself on the edge of their estates with just a handful of servants and the ability to come and go as he pleased. He loved his mother, but she could be . . . cloying.
It didn’t seem to bother the mild-mannered Cecilia, but Jack found it nigh on unbearable these days.
“I have been thinking of how to broach this subject with you for some time, Jack.” The Duchess broke the silence first. She took a sip of her tea, then frowned down at it as if the liquid was somehow at fault for being less-than-perfect.
“What subject, Mother?”
“The subject of your future, Jack.” She took a breath, squaring her shoulders. “The Season will begin any day now, and I must know how you intend to proceed.”
“Proceed how, Mother? I don’t know what you mean.”
“Your marriage,” she said heavily.
“Oh, indeed. You must marry, Jack. You are two-and-twenty years old, and it is high time you thought about settling down.”
Jack scratched the back of his neck. It was a habit he had whenever he was feeling uncomfortable. Lately, he’d found himself scratching his nape raw during these seemingly endless conversations with his mother.
“If this is about Helena . . .”
“It is about Lady Helena,” Her Grace said brusquely. “The Trevelyans have invited us to dine during the Season. Helena and Francis will, of course, be in attendance. I have been dropping hints in your ear for months. Lady Helena is excessively fond of you, and she will make a perfect wife.”
“So, are you ordering me to marry Lady Helena Truelove?” Jack asked. He felt bone-tired all of a sudden. That did not bode well for his ride with Francis later.
The duchess snorted. “Of course, I am not. What do you take me for? Besides, Jack, you are a grown man and a marquess in your own right. Even if I wished to give you commands, I could not. Let me ask you a question, Jack. Why do you think your father and I are so insistent that you marry?”
Jack blinked. He hadn’t been expecting that. Previously, his mother had alternatively coaxed and half-threatened, claiming he would find himself left upon the shelf if he didn’t snag a nice young lady soon.
The nicest young lady of all, of course, was Lady Helena.
“I . . . I don’t know, Mother. I assume you have my happiness in mind.”
“You are correct.” She took another sip of tea and, this time, she wrinkled her nose and set the cup down with a disappointed clatter. “That tea is awful. Quite over-stewed. As you know, darling, your father and I married in later life. I myself was close to thirty when I married, and two-and-thirty when you were born.”
“You were hardly in your dotage, Mother.”
She cast him on one of her special ‘Looks.’ “I certainly was not. My point is that my marriage and my two children afforded me the greatest happiness I could ever have imagined. I love you and Cecilia dearly, but there have been . . . difficulties.”
The duchess flinched a little, as if recalling a particularly nasty memory. “When you were a child and Cecilia only a baby, I had a spell of poor health. I daresay you can’t remember, and I have always been strong. I recovered, but I will never forget the fear I felt. I was terrified that I might die and leave you two without a mother. Cecilia’s birth, in particular, was difficult for me in a way a younger woman may not have experienced. I hardly need to tell you about your poor, dear Father’s worry about providing for Cecilia when he is gone.”
Jack shifted in his chair, a little uncomfortable about the personal stories his mother was sharing. “I don’t understand what you mean, Mother.”
“I mean that having a family will offer you the greatest happiness you will ever experience, but the longer you leave it, the less likely it is that you will enjoy such happiness. Or, at least, you won’t enjoy it for long. Think of Lady Adelaide Sparks who married at the age of five-and-thirty and died in childbirth the very next year. What a tragedy.”
“I’m . . . I’m not likely to die in childbirth, Mother.”
He received another Look.
“You are deliberately avoiding my point, Jack. It’s the fashion these days for men to wait until they are practically on the cusp of old age before marrying, and I do not believe that will make you happy. I know you, Jack. You long for companionship. You’re quite a romantic, you know.”
“I am not.”
The duchess pursed her lips but didn’t bother to argue. “Don’t waste your youth, Jack.”
There was a little pause. Jack felt a little shaken by his mother’s revelation. She had talked gleefully of the years she’d enjoyed as a single lady in the past and was insistent that Cecilia wouldn’t be married off right out of the schoolroom. Was his mother hinting that she regretted not marrying and having children earlier? That shifted Jack’s entire perception of his mother, and he wasn’t sure he liked the new view.
“But then, shouldn’t I seek out a woman whom I truly love?” Jack rallied. “I don’t love Lady Helena Truelove.”
His mother did not flinch. “Tosh.”
“Don’t say ‘what’ like that, Jack, it’s vulgar. You say you don’t love Lady Helena. Do you dislike her?”
“No, of course not! I’ve known Helena all her life, she’s very dear to me.”
“And you enjoy spending time with her? You admire her qualities?”
“Of course, I do. Lady Helena is a lovely girl. She’s entertaining, charming, and quite artless and clever, too. I like Helena very much, Mother, but . . .”
“Do you think she’s pretty?”
Jack pressed his lips together. “I do think she’s pretty, but in the same way I think Cecilia is pretty. Like a sister, Mother.”
“Yes, but she is not your sister, is she?”
There was a little silence. The duchess sighed and shook her head. “It’s all those romance novels you read.”
“I don’t read romance novels!” Jack protested hotly. “Those are Cecilia’s books.”
“Yes, and they were on your nightstand.”
“Why were you in my . . .”
“That is beside the point,” she hastily corrected. “Jack, you have a warped view of what marriage and love is like. You admit to yourself that you enjoy Lady Helena’s company. You like spending time with her, you think she’s pretty, and you have known her for years. You like her. What, pray tell, do you think love is supposed to feel like?”
Jack floundered for a reply. “I . . . I don’t know, but surely . . .”
“Surely what? Darling, love doesn’t feel as if somebody has dropped a brick on you from a height. It isn’t a horrid, painful experience that keeps one awake at night, languishing around the place. More often than not, love is a quiet, pleasant little plant that grows in a well-tended garden after marriage, if you’ll excuse the metaphor. You’re expecting something quite dramatic that will, frankly, never arrive.” The duchess leaned closer, placing her hand over Jack’s. He still held his cooling cup of tea in his other hand. “Helena is a sweet, darling girl. You will be happy with her, I know it. I don’t need to tell you how happy it would make me and your father as well as her parents.”
Jack struggled to find something to say. Was it possible his mother was right? Had he been in love with Helena all this time? He’d never been in love before, so he had nothing to compare it to. If it was love, it was somewhat underwhelming. How would he feel if Helena announced an engagement to someone else? Would he be happy, relieved, or terribly jealous and disappointed?
Then, of course, it would be too late.
“I don’t know what to say, Mother.”
“Then listen to me now. I know, I know, you’re thinking that you’ve spent a lot of time recently listening to your old mother, and I must ask that you listen a little more. If you’ll take my advice, you will declare your intentions to court Helena at the first Society ball. She’s a lovely girl and will be snapped up in no time. Stake your claim now, then you shall have more time to spend with her.”
Jack swallowed hard. “But once I’ve announced my intentions and spoken to her father, we might as well be engaged, Mother!”
Her Grace nodded, not looking very surprised. She’d clearly given this a lot of thought already. “Sometimes, young people need a little push, Jack. Committing yourself now could save you from disappointment and heartache later. Once you find yourself committed to Helena, you may discover that you have made the best decision of your life. Take away the dilemma and make the right decision. That’s all I ask, dear.”
The duchess finished and raised her eyebrows expectantly.
“Well, what does Lady Helena think?” Jack objected weakly. “She might be as horrified as I am at the idea.”
“Or perhaps the poor thing has been secretly pining for you for a long time.”
Jack flinched. “I don’t believe that. Helena only sees me as a brother, I’m sure of it.”
His mother sighed. “You may believe what you like, Jack. But think of how you would feel if Helena married another man, a man who treated her cruelly. Would you ever forgive yourself? Be reasonable, Jack. The time has come for you to do the right thing.”
That, Jack thought, was an underhand blow. Of course, he would be devastated if Lady Helena married a man who made her unhappy. It would be every bit as upsetting as it would be if Cecilia married a cruel man.
Did that mean he really was in love with Lady Helena?
The atmosphere in the drawing room was getting too much for Jack. He stood abruptly, suddenly very eager to make his escape.
“I must go, Mother.”
“Already?” she said, looking disconcerted.
He nodded. “Francis and I are going riding. Do excuse me, please.”
Without waiting for a reply, he turned and fairly ran out of the drawing room. He needed to clear his head and have a good, hard think about his future.
Jessica was eager for a respite after breakfast. She decided it was a good time to start sorting through her mother’s things. A paltry few boxes had finally been delivered from Lansdowne House, battered and crushed as if something heavy had been resting on them.
Well, considering that her Uncle Martin Meade, Earl of Lansdowne, and Aunt Virginia had been responsible for the transportation of the boxes, that was quite possible if not deliberate.
Neither Jessica nor her grandmother had felt equal to having what was left of Jessica’s mother’s things displayed in their home. Not yet at least. So, it was decided that Jessica would sort through the things as and when she felt up to it, and the boxes had been stored in the attic in the meantime. Jessica had decided that now was the time to get started on what promised to be an upsetting task, as they would soon be leaving Templeton to stay at Lady Wycke’s London townhouse for the Season.
That was, if Jessica decided to go, of course. She might claim her grief was still too raw to face any socialising that year and demur.
But would that be wise? If she was eventually able to apply for guardianship of her little brother and sister, Uncle Martin—if he chose to contest her application—might point to her missing the Season as evidence she was too distraught to care for her siblings properly, or even that she was not in her right mind.
Besides, she would need to marry if she ever intended to see Jon and Maria again. Her dearest aunt and uncle were certainly not willing to let her see them otherwise.
She climbed the stairs into the attic and paused. There were far too many boxes to belong just to her mother. She bent to look at the name scrawled on the side of one box and drew in a breath.
1804, Property of Robert Bourne
These were her father’s boxes. 1804 was the year before he’d gone away to sea and disappeared from their lives forever. No doubt, his body lay at the bottom of the sea somewhere, lost forever. Jessica hesitated for only a moment. She opened up the box, coughing at the cloud of dust that rose up from the lid. She imagined her grandmother had ordered the boxes brought up to the attic sometime after her son had not returned. Likely, they had not been touched since.
Jessica wasn’t quite sure what she expected to find in the box. Some old clothes, perhaps a few souvenirs and keepsakes. To her surprise, however, she opened the box to a collection of dusty, old-fashioned toys.
There were cunningly carved little wooden soldiers, wooden farm animals, and a large, dusty bear.
Jessica remembered the bear. A three-year-old child couldn’t really carry many memories, but she certainly remembered the coarse black fur and the bear’s blue glass eyes. The memory was so intense that Jessica closed the box with a shudder. She would return to it later.
For now, Jessica turned back to the miserable collection of her mother’s possessions.
The fact that there were only a few boxes was bad enough. Her mother had been a lady with a large home of her own and three children. Yet her life had been reduced to a few possessions that the wretched Lady Virginia did not want and were apparently not worth anything.
Jessica opened the first box, and began to sort through the contents, which had clearly been tossed in with complete disregard. One box held clothing, old gowns, nightdresses, linens, even a few pairs of shoes, all crumpled together and pushed down, to make sure the box would close over the material. She imagined Lady Virginia had helped herself to her mother’s nicer clothes. Jessica didn’t even recognise these garments.
They were no good to Jessica, in any case. She was taller than her mother, with a small bust that would be swamped by gowns designed for the late countess. The shoes were too small too. She could always cut up the material to make something else, but Jessica had no need for more clothes.
At least, her uncle and aunt had not stooped so low as to rifle through Jessica’s things before throwing her out of her old home. Jessica packed the old clothes back into the box as neatly as possible and carefully closed the lid. She moved onto the next box.
It rattled a little, and she opened it to find it contained a few items of jewellery—the paste jewellery Jessica and her siblings had bought as presents for their mother as children. Lady Virginia had naturally kept all the valuable items, including the real jewels Jessica had bought for her mother over the past few years. There were a few well-thumbed books, the late countess’s favourite novels, and her journals. There was a dressing set, a mirror, hairbrush, and a few other silver-backed items. They weren’t particularly valuable, and Jessica remembered that Lady Virginia had her own expensive, gold-plated dressing set.
She took the dressing set out of the box. She would keep it for herself.
At the very bottom of the box was a pile of letters. They had clearly once been tied with a green ribbon, but the ribbon had been untied and tossed carelessly into the box.
The letters were all open, and Jessica just knew that her awful uncle and aunt had read them. Some of them, at least.
She gathered them together, ribbon and all, and set them aside to read later. That was the last of the boxes.
That was the last of her mother’s things. Or, at least, the things Lady Virginia and Lord Martin had chosen to relinquish. Jessica had to choke back a sob as she pushed the last box away. Another of her father’s old boxes caught her eye, and Jessica opened it, more out of curiosity than from expectation of finding anything to console her.
It was mostly full of books, decayed and faded with time. But shoved down one side was a pile of letters, tied in a white ribbon which had long since faded to a dirty yellow colour.
Frowning, Jessica took out the letters. She untied the ribbon, taking out one letter. It was written in her mother’s hand, and with a jolt, Jessica realised they were old letters from Lady Caroline to Lord Robert Meade. From her mother to her father.
She scrambled for the other letters she’d found before, the ones from her mother’s box. She already knew what to expect.
The handwriting on those letters was not familiar, but every letter began with the words, My dearest Caroline and ended with Your devoted Robert.
They were love letters between her parents! Caroline had kept them for over fifteen years, and Jessica wondered whether she had kept them hidden from her second husband, Jon and Maria’s father.
He had been a good man, of course, and Jessica was sure her mother had loved him dearly. But there hadn’t exactly been the spark of true passion one might expect to see in a happily married couple. Jessica had only noticed that as she grew older, and she felt only sadness as she came to understand that her adored, jovial stepfather wasn’t the love of her mother’s life.
Jessica wrestled with her conscience only for a few minutes before deciding to read the letters. Neither of her parents were alive, so what was the harm?
She opened one of the letters her mother had written first. It seemed well-thumbed, the pages dog-eared and tattered, the ink faded, as if Robert Meade had read the letter over and over again.
My dear Robert,
I cannot find interest or energy in anything now that you are gone. I cannot help but feel jealous of Templeton House—I’m sure it is a beautiful place, but to know that you are there and not here is too much for me.
Mama complains that I spend too much time reading and rereading the letters you have written to me. She claims that a lady should never write to a gentleman and, if she must, the letter ought to be short, polite, and without emotion.
You’ll forgive me if I don’t take my cues from my dear Mama, who doubtless has not experienced love in her life. She says that love grows after marriage, and a respectable lady ought to want for nothing more.
I cannot agree.
I love you, Robert. I have said it before, and I will write it here. I can imagine you saying it to me, too—or rather, I don’t need to imagine it. I can draw on my own memories.
Mama insists that I wait until summer is over before I give you my answer and our engagement is announced. She was surprised at how easily I agreed, but the truth of it is, my feelings will not change. Not now, not ever.
All my love,
P.S Thank you for sending me the exquisite watercolour painting. I cannot wait to visit you at Templeton and see all these beautiful scenes you have drawn and painted for me. This one, however, is my favourite. I shall frame it and keep it with me always. When we live together as husband and wife, I shall hang it on the wall in our parlour and we can admire it together.
Jessica bit her lip after reading the short letter. There was no sign of the watercolour painting, but she remembered a small framed picture that had always hung in Lady Caroline’s favourite little parlour. She had never paid much attention to the picture, which was of wildflowers in a field, very pretty, but with no initials on the bottom to identify the artist. Was that the painting referred to here? It was clearly one that her wretched uncle and aunt had decided to keep.
Most of the other letters were much longer and neatly dated at the top. This one had been written about a year before her parent’s marriage. The writing was a little cramped, and it seemed as if Lady Caroline had written it quickly and not as carefully or beautifully as the other letters.
On impulse, she rifled through the letters written by her father. His handwriting was unfamiliar to her, as if the letters had been written by a stranger.
Well, after all, they had.
My darling Caroline,
Templeton is so very dull without you. I miss you every day, but I have used the time to plan our future together. My mother sometimes joins in my plans, but I don’t think you would want to live in the same home as dear Mother! I have not, of course, broken this news to Mother.
I am writing faithfully to your parents, although I rarely receive more than a terse, unfriendly note in reply. I know they do not like me, but I will convince them I am worthy of you. For your sake and my own.
I finished the book you sent me with your last letter in less than a week, my responsibilities on the estate notwithstanding. I was enraptured! I sat up late into the night every night, telling myself I would read one chapter more, just one page more, then another, then another . . .
Needless to say, I enjoyed it very much. I am sending your copy back with this letter, along with a little postscript to you in the flyleaf. Oh, and there is a new little sketch for you to see inside the book, too. I have experimented in a new style—let me know what you think!
I love you so dearly, Caroline, and the rest of summer will last forever without you by my side. I long for us to be married and to embark on our lives together. I feel that only then will my life truly begin.
With all my love,
Your adoring Robert
Jessica read letter after letter, not caring that the only people who had ever set eyes on them before were the intended recipients. She read through months and months of love letters, each sentence burning with love and hope. The letters didn’t stop after Robert and Caroline were married either. There were letters exchanged when Robert and Caroline were separated.
Very few of the paintings had survived, but Jessica did find one.
It was a self-portrait of Robert Bourne, the late Earl of Templeton, and Jessica looked at it for a long time.
She knew she didn’t resemble the late countess in the slightest. Their figures, faces, and colouring had all been very different. Jessica’s mother had rich, olive skin that deepened to a toasted nut colour after a hint of sunshine, with brassy gold hair, and large brown eyes. To see her and her daughter together—well, one would never have guessed they were related.
Jessica had auburn hair that shone like fire when the sun caught it. Her skin was far too pale for her liking, and she’d endured many terrible sunburns in her life. She had almond-shaped green eyes, properly green, not hazel or bluish green. Looking at the painting, Jessica realised something she had always known deep down—she looked exactly like her father.
A serious-looking, red-haired gentleman looked up at her out of the painting, his eyes the same true green as hers. He had the same long, straight nose as Jessica, the same pointed chin, the same shaped eyes, and well-shaped, firmly set mouth.
This was her father. Robert Bourne, her real father, whose name she carried around with her own.
The last letter Jessica read was written by her father to her mother in December of 1803.
I would have been a baby, Jessica realised. The letter quickly revealed that Robert Bourne was away on business, but his letter was just as full of love as the earlier ones were. There was a postscript too:
P.S I have scarcely had time to draw breath since I arrived, but I have taken a few minutes to make a quick sketch of a bird which landed on my windowsill. It’s hardly one of my best works, but it is a robin—one of your favourite birds. I hope you like it.
He was still drawing and painting for Caroline. Jessica felt a tear roll down her cheek and realised her face was wet, yet she didn’t recall when the tears had begun to fall.
Years and years of outpourings of love and devotion had all resulted in a stack of paper and ink. Both writers were dead, their love story ended in tragedy and death.
She was all that was left of their love.
Jessica angrily dashed the tears away. She had cried enough for her mother and knew Lady Caroline would not want her to mourn forever.
She couldn’t say what her father would want. She had never known the man.
Yet there were parts of him everywhere, scattered around the attic, remnants of an abandoned life.
Jessica would never know him, but . . . but perhaps she could retain a sliver of his life. She felt the same love he had felt for Caroline. It was almost as if their ghosts had thrown their old letters her way in a remarkable coincidence. Perhaps they were trying to tell her something.
Well, if the letters were some sort of message from beyond the grave, Jessica would be a fool not to listen.
The letters proved that true love wasn’t merely something made up by writers to sell romance novels. It was real and it could be found. It occurred to her that Caroline had met Robert Bourne at a Society ball; she said so in one of her earliest letters to him.
If a love like theirs could truly be found, then Jessica wanted it too. She wanted it badly. Whether she would be successful or not in finding it was a different matter altogether. But one thing was certain—she would not find love sitting in this dusty attic.
The best place to start was, Jessica sighed to herself, the London Season.
Lady Wycke looked up in surprise as Jessica came sidling into the drawing room.
“Goodness, there are you. How long does it take to . . . why, Jess, you are covered in dust!”
Jessica flushed. “I found some letters. Some letters between Mother and Father. My real father, that is.” She held out the stack of letters, the ribbons neatly retied. “I read them. I don’t know if I ought to have, but I did. Do you want to read them?”
Lady Wycke stared at the letters for a long time. A flash of pain crossed her face. “No,” she answered finally. “No, thank you.”
“I’ve come to a decision about London. If the offer still stands, Grandmother, I would like to go.”
The dowager blinked, clearly surprised, before she quickly smoothed the expression from her face.
“Well. That’s . . . that’s good news, Jessica. I do think you are making the right decision.”
“Yes, so do I.”
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel“Jessica The Viscount’s Wallflower”. Claim your copy on Amazon!