September 13th, 1881
Brightshire, Kent, England
They dance just for me, Charlotte Aldridge thought, looking out across the ocean of swaying stalks of wheat.
A light breeze cooled her skin and lifted her mood as she walked beside her pony cart filled with loaves of bread. The spring yield, planted last January, reached greedily toward the warming sun. This crop would not bear as much as the winter harvest but would surely keep the small market town of Brightshire fed through the winter months, as well as the country folk of Goldenbrook. The inhabitants of the nearby hamlet depended on each morsel the reaping machine left behind.
The cart bumped easily along the pitted dirt road, the pony’s lead line tossed across the animal’s back. A rare Adonis butterfly, known in Kent for its shimmery blue shade, flitted across the path and landed on a stalk of wheat. Slowly, its large wings opened and closed. Charlotte stopped to watch, wondering how a silk dress in that exact hue would feel upon her skin. Feminine, for one.Impossible, for another. She wrapped her arms around her middle, imagining, longing. Then, without so much as a by-your-leave for her breathless admiration, the lovely creature took to the sky and was gone.
She heaved a sigh and ran to catch her cart. Ahead, a stone bridge arched over a narrow brook. From there, the road leading to Ashbury Castle disappeared into forestland. It wasn’t visible now, but what she knew from living in Brightshire her whole life was the road through the forest would emerge into a great open expanse and the five-hundred-year-old castle of the Duke of Brightshire. The tall, square tower and checkerboard-patterned battlements were partly visible over the treetops. Two flags fluttered in the breeze—one bearing the duke’s coat of arms and the other Queen Victoria’s.
Charlotte sighed again. The scent of wildflowers reached her nose, reminding her of costly perfume noblewomen took for granted as much as the air they breathed. Did they know how lucky they were? Charlotte would be happy with a single dress that hadn’t been handed down through the village but was new, hers alone.
She gazed at the tower. There was something magical about Ashbury. But since the deaths of William Northcott, Duke of Brightshire, and then his son and heir, who had worn the title for less than a year, a cloud had hung over the town. The Northcotts were the most important family in the area and employed many of the villagers. The lucky ones, with jobs inside the castle, relayed the goings-on and tensions from Ashbury on a daily basis. Charlotte’s cousin Amelia worked as a scullery maid, and her monthly visit home was anticipated with excitement. During the time the young duke had reigned, Amelia had brought rumors of parties and gambling, as well as tension between the duke and his mother, the duchess. Then the young duke had died in a hunting accident and his body hadn’t been recovered for two whole days. The affair had been ghastly.
His death and the fact that a new duke or duchess had not been announced had been the subject of speculation for seven long months. And now rumors abounded that the knife wound that killed him might not have been an accident at all—but murder.
The rumors made Charlotte fear for her brother. Thomas was twenty, older by a year, and seemed to be hiding something important about that day. She dared not pry for fear of learning something she would not like to know. She’d heard from Amelia that the young duke often went into the woods with his gun, sometimes just to shoot, and other times to hunt small game. That day the word was he’d gone out alone. That same day Charlotte had gone into Ashbury’s woods, basket over her arm, in search of the wild mushrooms that grew around the lake to use in the meat pies they sold at her family’s bakeshop. She’d seen movement across a large meadow and up the rise: two men, their backs to her. One was clearly the duke, for his bright red cloak was like no other. He was tall and his wide shoulders distinctive. The other man wore a long duster, much like the one Thomas owned. He’d been partly hidden by trees, making his identity uncertain. Thomas delivered the bread to Ashbury every Tuesday and ran into the young duke now and then; he’d spoken often of the duke’s conceit and condescending words. There was no love lost between them.
Soon the men moved out of sight, and Charlotte went about her chore. An hour later, and on her way home, she spotted Mr. Henderley, the gamekeeper, striding through the forest, wearing a long coat, a noticeable limp to his gait. Slipping behind a bush, she waited for him to pass. The gamekeeper’s job was to watch for poachers, and she didn’t want to get into trouble, even for poaching mushrooms.
Before long, Thomas—now she was sure it was him—jogged out of the tree line. He was too far away to call without alerting the gamekeeper. He looked distressed, and once or twice he glanced over his shoulder. She knew him well enough to believe he’d found some sort of trouble.
It wasn’t until she’d heard of the duke’s passing that she’d remembered she’d yet to ask Thomas why he’d been on the duke’s land. He hadn’t had a gun, so he wasn’t poaching. But when she inquired, he claimed to have been fishing on the other side of Brightshire. Why had he lied?
In the days that followed, the constable questioned the men of Brightshire and Goldenbrook, hoping to find a witness to what had transpired. A duke’s death was serious, and facts needed to be known. The lawman hadn’t doubted Thomas’s account, but she had. Even before the duke’s death, she’d noticed Thomas had begun to behave differently, and his frequent absences from the bakeshop created tension between him and their aunt. He seemed to avoid Charlotte’s glance, and sometimes her altogether. Recently, she’d misplaced a hair ribbon and later found the decorative length in the pocket of his coat, of all places, when she was tidying up. Questioning him turned his cheeks ruddy, and he’d shrugged.
She’d told herself that she needed to remember Thomas wasn’t a boy any longer, that he had grown up and must have some secrets. With that thought, she’d been able to lay her worries aside—until yesterday. Two women had come into the bakeshop whispering about the duke. They’d heard rumors there might have been a fight of some kind and he’d been killed. One woman had whispered that Thomas, the baker’s nephew, had been questioned by the constable. Charlotte’s back had gone stiff at that—as if the constable’s questioning made him guilty. All the men had been questioned! All of them. It had taken every ounce of restraint for her to simply smile and help the women with their purchases.
Charlotte glanced longingly at the clouds, wishing she had the ability to fly away from her problems like a sparrow. She reached out and stroked Sherry’s neck under her flaxen mane, taking note the small beast was hot and would soon need to rest. Only twelve hands tall, the old Welsh/Hackney cross had a cottonlike forelock and more than a few gray hairs around her muzzle and eyes. The scabby, fly-bitten area under her belly never seemed to heal no matter how much lard Charlotte slathered on.
A plume of dust appeared on the road ahead.
Someone is coming from the castle!
Charlotte had traveled from Brightshire to Goldenbrook many times before, but today she’d turned off her usual route and was now headed toward the dense forested woodlands that led to Ashbury. A whisper of uncertainty filled her chest. She thought of the dead duke, the gamekeeper, and her brother. Had something more than an accident transpired that day? Was the responsible person still lurking in the woods?
Not someone, but a group!
Taking Sherry’s lead, Charlotte guided the pony off the side of the road, making room as she waited for the procession to reach her. The gleaming black coach trimmed in gold was escorted by two riders and followed by the same. Were the duchess and Lady Audrey inside? Her heart thrummed against her ribs.
“Easy, little mum,” Charlotte mumbled, more to calm herself than the already drowsy pony. “We’ll be on our way soon enough.”
As the coach passed, Charlotte curtsied, keeping her gaze respectfully anchored to the ground even though she hungered for a glimpse of the women’s gowns. A quick insubordinate blink earned her a flash of bright scarlet and of cobalt trimmed in gold.
Such beauty!Oh, to see the dresses in full!
And then they were gone.
Charlotte waited until they were down the road before she nudged Sherry awake. “Walk on, little mum,” she whispered. “Fairy tales are not for girls like us.” The ache inside was real. Insistent.She pushed it away. “We have work to do and need not while the day away with silly daydreams. We certainly don’t need to anger Aunt Ethel.”
After crossing the arched cobblestone bridge, they entered the dark, forested lands that lay before the castle. Still early in the day, there would be plenty of light filtering in and around the densely knit trees.
“Watch your step,” Charlotte whispered as they approached a deep rut. She didn’t like this stretch of road. The mile-long tunnel of living green was spooky. Though the temperature was sunny and warm outside the forest, within the darkness a puff of cold air chilled her shoulders. Unnerved, she glanced behind at the disappearing daylight and then placed her hand on Sherry’s warm withers as they walked along.
The hamlet children spoke of witches and gnomes and fairies in the forest. Every now and again, the tale of the Lost Baby resurfaced—how the weeping could be heard on foggy nights, as the child cried for her mama. Aunt Ethel had scoffed at the myth, saying the account was nonsense. But why, then, did folks still come scurrying into Brightshire from time to time, saying they’d heard something—like a child whimpering in the trees?
The branches overhead swished, and the leaves of a holly plant tinkled. A mixture of alder, ash, and aspen filled the forest, as well as elderberry and buckthorn. She particularly liked the white bark of the silver birch and the delicate flowers of the burnet rose plants scattered over the mossy ground. The forest smelled musty and old.
Suddenly, a dog streaked out from under the brush and rushed her wagon.
Sherry reared and turned a half circle, ready to bolt for home. Charlotte jumped forward and grabbed the trailing lead line to keep her from running off. Loaves of bread flew to the ground, rolling here and there.
“Stop that!” Charlotte yelled at the gangly golden retriever barking playfully at Sherry’s legs. “Get back before I take my boot to you!” Although loud and obnoxious, the animal didn’t appear dangerous. She needed to see if any of the toppled loaves could be salvaged.
“Bagley,” a voice thundered. “Heel!” The command was followed by a tall stranger, who appeared out of the foliage.
The interloper barked again and grasped one of the loaves on the ground as Charlotte herself took hold. A tussle ensued. She lost her balance on the uneven path and fell onto her hands and knees. The dog, his prize clenched between his jaws, bounded off into the bushes.
Embarrassed, she climbed to her feet and brushed dirt from her palms. She felt a warm trickle of blood before the pinch of pain.
The man started in her direction. “You’re hurt, miss.”
She snatched her injured hand behind her back as she fished in her pocket for her kerchief with the other. “I’m fine, it’s just a scratch, but your dog has stolen my bread!” Humiliated by his fretful gaze, and how she must have looked playing tug-of-war with his unmannered beast, she made a show of picking up the other loaves. “And your dog scared my pony. Where are his manners, sir?” With nothing left to do, she turned to face him.
He was tall and held a rifle in one hand, and his booted feet were spread wide. Fear streaked through her. Was he a road robber, here to steal the rest of her bread and anything else she had? He made no move toward her.
“I’m sorry.” He dipped his chin. “About your baked goods and the scrape on your palm. Bagley’s still a pup, more or less.”
Robbers didn’t go around with unruly upstarts, did they? When he did step closer, she realized he was younger than she’d originally thought, maybe five years older than she. His clothes were clean and free of patches and visible mending. He wasn’t a farmworker or peasant. A long coat, one much too warm if he were to venture out of the shade of the woods, fell all the way to his tall, black boots. A thick belt around his middle held a small leather bag, a sheathed knife, and what looked to be a coiled leash for his rascally scamp.
Not quite ready to forgive and forget, she said, “The missing loaf will cost you threepence, sir. I’ll not charge you for the fare that landed on the road unless the castle turns it away.”
“I have no money on me. I’ll have to pay you later. Just tell me where.”
The deep timbre of his voice pricked her senses. “Smith’s Bakeshop in Brightshire.”
“I’ve not seen you before,” he said. “Who should I ask for?”
Who was he and why was he trespassing on the duke’s land? “Miss Aldridge. My brother usually delivers the bread to Ashbury. He’s sick today, and so his job fell to me.” Sick? Ha! Early this morning, after Aunt Ethel was too busy in the bakeshop to notice, Thomas had climbed out his bedroom window and shinned down the wall with the dexterity of a mountain goat. At sundown, he’d no doubt appear with six or seven large golden trout.
Giving so much information, she felt she’d earned the right to ask who he was. “And you are?”
“Tristen Llewellyn, from Wales. Mr. Henderley, the gamekeeper, is my uncle.”
Mr. Henderley’s nephew?“Have you taken his job, then?” She remembered the older man’s limping gait the day of the duke’s death.
“No, just helping out until he’s back on his feet.”
Bagley was back, wagging his tail as if he hadn’t just found trouble. He trotted around his master several times and then sat by Mr. Llewellyn’s side, as docile as a little lamb.
Now that she knew who he was, she allowed herself to relax. “Do you always let your dog go around frightening people?”
Tristen shrugged as amusement filled his eyes. “He’s in training. We’ve just lost the scent of a trail we’re following.” He gazed down at the dog. “He’ll get better with time.”
Mr. Llewellyn nodded. “Aye, a poacher, but I’m not sure. My uncle believes that during his convalescence, men have become bold. I’ve yet to encounter any in person but have found the signs. Footprints.Bloodstains.Pheasant feathers. Things like that. You should keep an eye out when you travel.”
She turned the pony and cart back in the direction toward Ashbury, not liking that news at all. She thought of Thomas and wondered how he filled his days. Not only with fish, she suspected. “Pheasants?” she murmured.
A frown tilted Mr. Llewellyn’s brows. “That’s right. This is bird season—pheasant, grouse, partridge. But I’m sure that’s of no interest to you.”
“Oh, and why not? We bake the finest meat pies in all of Brightshire, Goldenbrook, and beyond. If we don’t know what type of birds to expect from our hunters, how can we gather the most pleasing herbs and produce to complement the taste? I’ll be expecting some nice woodcock—after October first, that is.”
A smile played around his lips, and he gave a slight bow. “I withdraw my narrow-minded judgment of you, Miss Aldridge, and beg your pardon. I’ll bid you good day. But please, stay on the road. There’s been more than enough evidence of poachers.”
“I’ll do that, Mr. Llewellyn, but I’m from the village. The poachers are probably my neighbors and friends.” And brother. “I have nothing to fear if all they are after is game.” When his brow lowered she gave a conciliatory smile. He was only trying to be helpful. “But there have been robbers, so yes, I will be careful. And thank you. Good day.”
Hours later, and finished with the daily deliveries, Charlotte swished the currycomb over Sherry’s coat as the mare stood quietly in her stall munching hay. After that, she cleaned the chicken coop and collected the morning eggs, which remained untouched in their nesting boxes. She was responsible for the chickens, but since she’d been sent to do Thomas’s job, hers had remained undone. Taking the backdoor steps quickly, she stopped in the open threshold of the bakeshop, encountering a blast of oven heat.
“There you be!” an angry voice snapped.
From the square worktable inside the kitchen, Aunt Ethel, her hands deep in a large bowl of bread dough, glared at her. Her short jacket, with elbow-length sleeves, was covered by a full white apron. A blue-checkered scarf circled her neck and tucked into her bodice. The white cap atop her graying brown hair looked like a toadstool. After rising, the dough she worked now would be baked into loaves overnight.
“Did ya deliver ta Goldenbrook too? I know how that enchantress that lives there scares ya.”
“She’s a midwife, Aunt, not an enchantress. I’m not frightened of her.” Or you.
Speaking back on any account was always a risk. Aunt Ethel loved to paint her in the worst possible light. Frightened, lazy, brazen. Aunt Ethel and her sister, Ruby, the woman who’d raised Charlotte for the first three years of her life, had inherited the bakeshop from their parents. When Ruby passed away from a gangrenous arm nicked by the hatchet that was used for butchering, responsibility for her children, Thomas and Charlotte, fell to Aunt Ethel. While Ethel put up with Thomas because he was Ruby’s true son, Charlotte didn’t fare as well. Ethel never let Charlotte forget that she was a foundling, not blood.
“Ain’t you the sassy one? If I wasn’t up to my elbows in bread dough, I’d teach ya a little respect.”
“I’m not being disrespectful, Aunt.” They locked gazes. “Give me one minute to change my clothes and refresh myself, then I’ll spell Verity out front. I’m sure she’d like a cup of tea since you were shorthanded today.”
Aunt Ethel’s eyes narrowed.
Charlotte made room for the basket of thirty-five eggs between the tall stack of mixing bowls and spices and extracts. Upstairs in the room she shared with her cousin Verity (and Amelia when she was home), Charlotte stripped off her soiled clothes and put on fresh.
Out front, Verity was waiting on a customer, so Charlotte took a damp cloth and began to wipe the empty bread shelves that had been full this morning.
“You’re back,” Verity said, giving her older cousin a smile once the woman walked out the door. “I’m glad. You’ll never guess who came in.”
Charlotte tipped her head, waiting. Verity liked to drag out the telling.
“Well, don’t you want to know?”
“Yes, please tell. If not one of our usual customers, I’m stumped.”
“That handsome gentleman. You know the one. With a mess of brown hair and eyes that speak of romance. I almost fainted when he came through the door.”
Charlotte stopped wiping. “The duke’s cousin?”
“Yes.” Verity’s chestnut curls bounced under her kerchief as she nodded. At seventeen, she was one year younger than Amelia and three years younger than Thomas. “I almost lost my voice when I asked him what he wanted. Oh, Charlotte, he’s so attractive. Have you ever seen the like?”
“What did he buy?” Charlotte couldn’t resist teasing her.
“Two raspberry tarts, just like before. What do you think that means? Some kind of message?”
Oh, Verity, you have the heart of a romantic. What will we do with you? “Two raspberry tarts? That he has an appetite and raspberry is his filling of choice.”
Verity waved her off. “You’re no fun, Charlotte. I like to pretend he comes in to see me. Is that so wrong?”
Charlotte walked over and draped a loving arm across Verity’s shoulder. “Of course that’s not wrong. And who knows. Maybe you’re right.”
It could be true, she told herself as Verity melted into a pool of delight. Hope kept one’s spirit alive. Gave something to dream about other than the hardships and unhappiness of each passing day. She’d not steal that from her cousin.
“Charlotte!” Aunt Ethel shouted. “Get out there and get us a cockerel for supper. Wring its neck and pluck it clean. I’ll do the rest when I’m finished here.”
If only there was a way to tell her aunt that Thomas would most likely show up with a string of fresh trout, and save the cockerel to live another day.
“Go on,” Aunt Ethel continued. “It’s the second Tuesday of the month. Amelia comes home from Ashbury to spend the night. I’ve made a currant cake with sour milk frosting and cinnamon biscuits. Light a fire under your feet, you indolent girl. One night a month ain’t near enough time to spend with my darling daughter.” There was some muttering Charlotte couldn’t make out. “Amelia’s made something good of herself. Just think, working at the castle.”
Verity shrugged despondently at Charlotte, knowing she fell short in her mother’s eyes as well.
“Charlotte, you hear me?”
“Yes, Aunt Ethel. Going right now.”
Charlotte passed through the kitchen and was about to leave out the back door when the town crier, an orphan boy of ten, bounded past her into the kitchen waving a small piece of paper over his head.
Aunt Ethel gasped in surprise.
At the sound of the commotion, Verity poked her head in from the front.
“What’s the news?” Charlotte asked. What else can go wrong today?
“The Duke of Brightshire has been found—in America, no less! Ship docked late last night in Portsmouth. Tomorrow he’ll be on his way to Brightshire! And bringing an American duchess with him from a place called Coloradee.”Return to An American Duchess