Sara knocked on the door of Jacob’s private study and waited for his response. When it came, she opened the door and stepped inside.
Jacob looked up from his conversation with the estate steward. “Yes, Sara?”
She recoiled slightly at the hint of frustration in his voice. It was so unexpected and unlike him that the ants tickled her throat. “I—um—it is Wednesday afternoon, my lord,” she squeaked.
His brow lowered. “Yes?”
The ants increased their agitation in her throat. Sara bobbed her mouth open and shut, but no sound came out. Seeing this, Jacob’s face registered recognition. He let out a muffled curse and stood to approach her. Mr. Clarke, the steward, discreetly turned his attention to the papers in front of him.
Jacob stood close to her. “We are supposed to do the parish visits today, correct?” His tone was gentler.
Sara nodded, her throat easing.
He lowered his voice. “I apologize for speaking to you in such a way. Clarke has not brought good news and I allowed my frustration to get the better of me. I assure you, it was not meant to be directed at you.”
Sara cleared her throat, displacing the last of the ants. “I hope I did not interrupt.”
Jacob grimaced and ran a hand through his hair. “I wish I could say you did not. I am afraid I will not be able to escort you as planned. I need to work with Clarke to resolve this situation. Could we possibly postpone until tomorrow?”
Sara shook her head. “Louisa asked that I relieve her from her afternoon classes tomorrow instead of yesterday, as per our regular schedule. On Friday I do the same for Claire, so both afternoons are spoken for.
Another shake of her head. “Saturday is when the Ladies Auxiliary for the Betterment of Widows, Orphans and Other Unfortunates has their weekly meeting. Claire and I plan to attend, as we wish to help with the coming May charity fair, and afterwards I will do the flower arrangements for the church. Also, it will be too late, as there are families depending on the baskets and other essentials we will bring today.”
Jacob grimaced again. “I apologize, Sara, but with this development, I cannot spare the time.”
Sara nodded. “I understand. I am certain George will be willing to escort me. He is always keen to help me with the flower arrangements.”
His brows lowered. “George, the groom?” Disapproval laced his tone.
Sara looked at him, censure in her eyes. “George is from a home like those we will visit, Jacob,” she said quietly. “I highly doubt he will be judged.”
A throat cleared and Jacob turned his head to look at Mr. Clarke. “Pardon me, sir, but we must not delay.”
Jacob sighed and looked back at Sara. “Very well. But I will speak to George before you leave.”
She shook her head. “Thank you for your concern, but that is not necessary. He escorts me every Saturday and is more than capable of doing this.”
Jacob gave her a long, silent look before sighing again. “Simply promise me that you will not do anything you wouldn’t do with Mr. Pomeroy there. Nothing to risk your safety.”
Sara smiled, touched by his concern. “A few souls in need of charity and loving kindness are hardly a risk. I shall be fine with George. What can happen in Taft?”
. . . although we lost this vote, your help in campaigning against it was noted by the high and mighty bigwigs. I was astounded to hear of your sudden departure from London—without a word to me, I might add. Rumors abound at Westminster as to the reasons and I find myself at a loss to explain it away; why you would ever want to leave is beyond me. At the very least invite me out to your idyllic retreat—I can ask a few of our favorites from the theatre to accompany me and we’ll give their performances a standing ovation, pun intended.
Bloody hell, mate, where the devil are you? Sending your post through your man is bad form.
Nathan stared at the words again; despite their current blurriness, he knew exactly what it said, for it was at least the tenth time he had read it. He reached for the decanter and poured the last drops of the brandy into his tumbler, wondering why he was even still bothering with the glass; the spirit no longer burned when it passed his gullet.
They had lost the vote.
It hadn’t been a hugely significant bill, just some amendment to a current law, adjusting it in favor of landowners. In truth, he had not given it much thought beyond voting the party line and would not have given it more notice beyond that if had not been for Lord Finchley.
Nathan crumpled the well-read letter and threw it toward the hearth, missing it altogether in a show of pathetic athleticism. Pulling himself out of the deep, overstuffed chair, he stumbled over to the library’s liquor cabinet and pulled out another bottle of brandy. Clasping it by the neck, he went back to his chair, walking into the sofa and side table as he did so.
He slumped into his chair, holding the bottle to his chest. He had been having a rather pleasant day before that blasted letter arrived. Sawyer had managed to not burn his eggs and toast this morning. Nathan had followed that with a walk into Taft, intending to fetch his post and lunch again at the pub; he had even taken the path through that forest maze and not gotten lost. The only thing that could have improved his morning was running into his Nymph again.
But the letter had arrived. And he skipped lunch to return to Windent Hall immediately, the folded paper burning his pocket the entire way.
They had lost the vote and Stevenson’s words brought back the very memory he was trying to forget.
Finchley’s visit had been expected; the man was known for persuading votes out of men, much as Nathan had been. The portly, middle-aged man came to Nathan’s home, which was unusual but not unheard of, a woman on his arm. His wife. They had spoken of the vote, traded the expected subtle and not-so-subtle barbs and discussed the price of Nathan’s political loyalty.
Nathan pulled the cork out of the bottle and drank from it, desperate to wash away the memory. Bribes were common enough in the halls of Westminster; he had paid them himself. Money, a horse, a house—men always had a price.
But when Nathan had refused any bribe, Finchley had indicated his young wife, pushing her forward toward him. A sennight he wouldn’t ever forget, the man promised, nights where he would experience the most exquisite ecstasy. All he had to do was deliver his vote and those of others. The wife had looked at him with dead eyes, giving him the impression that she was used to being a bargaining chip.
At Finchley’s prodding, his wife began to undress to better display her wares and the revulsion nearly overwhelmed Nathan. In a harsh voice, he removed the two from his house and threatened them with prostitution charges. His next hours were spent in half-drunken loathing at what his life had become, at the ease that he felt in such a corrupt profession, where loyalties were traded for such prices. And how for one revolting moment he had considered Finchley’s offer.
It was then he made the decision to leave London and had it all arranged within days. Windent Hall had seemed a perfect place for his newly acquired misanthropy.
More brandy flowed down his throat, the memory of Finchley and his wife shifting until a young, brown-eyed vicar stood in his place, introducing him to a luscious red-headed nymph who was willing to help out wherever needed. The similarities had shaken Nathan to the core and he had lashed out. In hindsight, he knew he had overreacted, but at the time he had only the desire to rid himself of them. Even worse, she continued to tempt him, appearing in his thoughts and dreams.
Yelling a foul curse at the discarded letter, he drank more.
The old nag stood patiently, appreciating the respite. George shifted the reins slightly in his hands. “Miss Sara, you want I should drive to the house?”
She didn’t acknowledge him right away but continued staring at Windent Hall, her last stop of the day. Every other visit had gone smoothly, giving her a sense of security and confidence that she was doing the right thing.
Her last visit here had resulted in her being insulted. Of course, Mr. Grant had apologized for his behavior, in a manner of speaking. And then proceeded to get frightfully angry. She still didn’t know what to make of his behavior in the pub last Saturday. Thinking of the intensity of his gaze, so potent she had felt he was touching her, still made shivers run down her spine.
Windent Hall did not look as though it housed an irrational, angry man. It still had a neglected look to it, although she could see more curtains had been opened and the window glass sparkled in the sun, even from her position at the end of the drive. She knew Mr. Grant could be a comfortable conversationalist, as proven on their walk. His outbursts all seemed to come from some sort of provocation, even if she didn’t know what caused it.
He couldn’t be all that bad. He was just a man, one Mr. Pomeroy was convinced was recovering from some sort of spiritual wound. She would just have to take care to not provoke him in any way.
That settled her mind. Giving George a nod, Sara instructed, “To Windent Hall, please.” George clucked and flicked the reins, setting the gig in motion. They reached the door in a matter of moments. George helped her down from the gig and she took the last basket from the back. He followed her to the door, knocking on it. When no answer came, he pounded even harder.
The door slowly swung open, more easily than it had last time, revealing the same elderly man dressed in a butler’s suit. He squinted against the sunlight, a large scar running down the right side of his face, his lips pulled back into a sneer.
The ants teased her throat. Just breathe, she instructed herself, he’s just a servant. She cleared her throat and said, “Good afternoon, I am Miss Collins. I have come to call on Mr. Grant.” Her voice was higher-pitched than normal.
One corner of his lips curled, his eyes raking over before he turned and shuffled away. He had left the door ajar; at her look, George shrugged and pushed it open. Sara stepped inside the darkened foyer just in time to see the man disappear down the same corridor as during her last visit.
She stood with her hands curled around the basket, unable to see much of the artwork due to the lack of light. Other items were still hidden under dust covers; Sara thought one might be a suit of armor or perhaps a statue of some sort. She did not mind the wait, as it gave her throat time to recover from that shock of a servant.
Shuffling sounds from down the corridor captured her attention and moments later the butler—for lack of a better word—reappeared. “His lordship says he don’t want to see nobody today.” The man’s voice was raspy and sent frissons of discomfort down her spine.
Sara cleared her throat again, choosing not to correct the man in his address of Mr. Grant. “Did you say who was calling? I am certain he would not be averse to speaking with me for a few moments.”
“He said he don’t want to see nobody,” the butler reiterated. “I don’t think he’s much bothered by who ye are.”
Sara took an involuntary step back at his rude words, the ants once more appearing.
“Here now,” George spoke up on her behalf. “Yer not to be speaking to Miss Collins like that. She’s a liedy.”
The butler shrugged. “She don’t pay me wages.”
George continued to defend her, his voice increasing in volume and agitation, and Sara fought the urge to melt into one of the dust covers. She saw the men argue, one righteous in his indignation, the other uncaring. It was clear she had been forgotten.
Why did she ever think coming here was a good idea? Every encounter she had with Mr. Grant left her feeling insulted and demeaned.
In the corner of her eye, Sara glimpsed some movement. Pulling her eyes away from the fighting men, she saw that the movement had actually been herself in a mirror, the dust cover hanging haphazardly from one of the top corners.
A strange, almost hypnotic pull came over her and Sara took several slow steps until she was directly in front of the old mirror, the men’s voices fading from her consciousness. She absently placed the basket on the table beneath it and lifting her hand, she pulled the dust cover off, revealing the rest of the glass and frame.
The frame was a plain dark wood with little to recommend it; the glass was grimy, blurring her image. Yet Sara could not look away from the obscured face, unremarkable and forgettable. It was pale, a frightened look in its eyes, a sense of lacking emanating from the expression.
Was that how people saw her? Easily dismissed, easily frightened, easily forgotten? She was aware that people did not have high expectations of her, but did that give others the right to demean and insult her?
You ought to be ashamed of yourself, girl, thinking you are better than others. You are the vicar’s daughter and are supposed to be humble. You should be grateful they like to play with you. For shame, girl!
What shame was there in wanting to be treated with respect and courtesy? Sara saw the lips in the mirror tighten. Meeting the eyes, she saw a hard anger she had not seen in them before.
Why should she be subject to such treatment? What entitled others to insult her, treating her as a lesser being? She had been nothing but kind to Mr. Grant and this is how he repaid her. Her father had raised her to treat others the way she wanted to be treated; her mother had shown her how inappropriate behavior should be handled.
In the dirty mirror, Sara saw George was still arguing with the butler. Straightening her spine, she turned and walked down the corridor the butler had used several minutes earlier. It was darker than the foyer, but a single door was cracked open enough to provide some light and she knew he was in there.
Mr. Grant’s insolence would not be tolerated this time.