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Excerpt for Strawberry Fields by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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Published by EVERNIGHT PUBLISHING ® at Smashwords


www.evernightpublishing.com




Copyright© 2018 Pelaam



ISBN: 978-1-77339-769-6


Cover Artist: Jay Aheer


Editor: CA Clauson



ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.


This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.






DEDICATION


To my partner for his unfailing love.



STRAWBERRY FIELDS


Pelaam


Copyright © 2018


Chapter One


With a yawn and a stretch, Nicolas finally looked up from his latest creation. The mechanical lap dog was a gift for his sister. He was talented as a tinker, although to some people, the calling was still shrouded with suspicion. Many of those skilled in the creation of such mechanicals as the dog Nicolas now polished often kept it secret.

However, in your case, my little mechanical friend, Amaretta can simply say I gave you to her as a gift and no questions need be answered.” Nicolas patted the mechanical’s head. “Only Amaretta and Mother know of my … additional … skill with mechanicals. Everyone else simply thinks of me as very talented in designing and building inanimate creations.”

With a sigh of contentment, Nicolas glanced around. His workroom might be tiny, but at least it was his own personal space. Along with his mother and sister, Nicolas enjoyed a modest life living in the countryside. He and his family preferred the clean country air and peaceful, open spaces to that of the noisy, crowded, and smog-laden city.

Pausing in his polishing, Nicolas looked at his latest creation and smiled. A mix of copper and brass, Nicolas had modelled the dog on the popular lapdog breed, the Skye Terrier. He’d even painstakingly worked the copper so that it looked as if it was long hair, not a metal casing. Nicolas had spent months building his gift.

I only have to imbue you with the final touches ready for Amaretta’s birthday in a couple of days’ time.” Nicolas sat back in his chair. “I’m certain that Amaretta’s birthday tea will be a very small gathering. She has only a couple of close friends, both older married ladies.”

His sister seemed to have little in common with the younger women more her own age. Amaretta bored quickly with discussions over which men were available and their suitability as future husbands. Nicolas wondered if her fiery temperament had anything to do with inheriting their father’s red hair. By contrast, Nicolas took after their mother with glossy, thick dark hair, but both he and Amaretta had their father’s hazel eyes.

But, in truth, even that is two more friends than me. The realization came as somewhat of a mental jolt. Nicolas’s lack of friends wasn’t something he’d ever given any due consideration before.

His mother had a couple of older cousins she regularly visited, and Amaretta had her friends, but when not in his workshop, Nicolas liked to read. Unlike other men of his age, he didn’t care to ride or hunt, preferring more cerebral pursuits.

With a sigh, Nicolas resumed polishing the mechanical. Perhaps, as his mother often exhorted, he should see if he could be of any assistance at the local cricket club. That was one sport Nicolas didn’t mind watching, and he was fit enough to participate.

However, he wouldn’t approach the subject with his mother just now. She’d been a little distracted for the last few weeks, doubtless fretting about Amaretta and her upcoming birthday party.

While his sister would be happy with just her friends, mother, and Nicolas, he knew their mother would not. He was quite certain she was intending to invite the ladies she herself visited for tea. And doubtless the party would include at least a couple of ladies whose sons were considered eligible bachelors.

That thought amused Nicolas enough for him to snicker out loud. His sister was very progressive in her ideas. Amaretta had no intentions of marrying anyone she didn’t love. She’d been very vocal to Nicolas about the lack of men she’d consider as husband material. ‘All they expect is a woman who will make their house run efficiently, entertain their guests, and produce children. Such a life is not for me, Nicolas.’

In that respect, he and Amaretta shared a common desire. To find someone to love and who would love them for who they were. So far, Nicolas had avoided his mother’s interference. She was more concerned at having a daughter heading into her mid-twenties and still unmarried than an older son who was yet to wed.

Once thing was certain, it would take a special man to turn Amaretta’s head. Pulling out his pocket watch, Nicolas checked the time, and decided it was time to return to the house to bathe and change. Putting the mechanical dog safely away, Nicolas locked his workshop and walked through the garden.

As the birds sang and butterflies fluttered by, Nicolas stopped and smiled. They were very lucky to have this lifestyle. Nicolas couldn’t imagine anything more idyllic.


Chapter Two


The day of Amaretta’s birthday tea dawned bright and sunny. Nicolas stood at his window and breathed deeply. The warmth, so early in the morning, boded well for an outdoor tea party later that day.

It was a family tradition for personal gifts to be exchanged in the evening, so Nicolas had set his mechanical aside to present to Amaretta after the party. However, there was something Nicolas wanted to avoid, and that was to get caught up in his mother’s inevitable last-minute agitations over preparation.

Therefore, as soon as breakfast was over, Nicolas took a pile of journals and settled in the tiny reading nook which overlooked the back garden. From there, Nicolas could gauge when best to make an appearance. He’d already made up his mind to let the first rush of guests arrive before joining in. That way Amaretta would remain the focus at the party.

Nicolas was so wrapped up in his reading, it was after midday before he realized how much time had flown by. Looking out of the window, he frowned. There were several long tables and lots of chairs dotted around, and even a small marquee. This wasn’t the setting Nicolas expected for an intimate tea party with a few close friends.

He rose to his feet and peered out with deepening curiosity as people bustled about setting the tables, and even a trio of musicians arrived. Nicolas shook his head as his mother came into view, directing everyone. What is Mother playing at? Surely this isn’t what Amaretta wanted. When I talked to her, she gave no indication this was going to be any different to previous tea parties.

There was nothing Nicolas could do. Everything seemed well in hand. Deciding to keep to his original plan, Nicolas took a leisurely bath before shaving and dressing. Checking his appearance in the mirror, Nicolas nodded, satisfied.

The last thing Nicolas wanted to do was upstage his sister on her birthday. Therefore, he’d chosen black pants, a plain white shirt with copper-coin buttons, and a thigh-length, black and grey damask jacket. The jacket was normally fastened by means of a couple of gleaming copper chains, but instead, Nicolas left the garment open. Nicolas felt smart enough for the party, but he would by no means detract from his sister.

All that was left was for him to don a pair of knee-high black and brown boots. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Nicolas tugged them into place. Standing once more, Nicolas gave a final sweep of wax through his hair, and he was ready to face the guests and whatever it was that his mother had organized.

In the time it had taken Nicolas to bathe and dress, the back garden had filled with many guests. Nicolas wondered if his mother had invited everyone from the village, along with the families from the local country houses. He politely greeted those he recognized and offered a smile and nod to those he didn’t, quite certain they didn’t know who he was either.

In the distance, he spotted Amaretta, and Nicolas hurried over to her. Although his sister looked calm, the fire in her eyes belied the outward composure.

Did you know Mother was doing this?” Amaretta whispered the words almost into Nicolas’s ear as she offered another insincere smile to a lady Nicolas didn’t know.

No.” Nicolas shook his head, then bowed to a couple of matronly ladies parading by. They smiled at Nicolas, and fluttered their fans, but didn’t even look twice at Amaretta. “They don’t know us any more than we know them. “What is Mother doing?”

I have no idea, but she keeps dragging me around to introduce me to ladies who are strangers to me. But most of them have a son in tow.” Amaretta glowered in the direction of their mother as Lady Valentina swept into view. “I feel like a prize cow being displayed ready for auction.”

“Don’t let it spoil your day.” Nicolas pecked a kiss to Amaretta’s cheek. “Be gracious, smile, accept any and all gifts you are offered, dance with whoever catches your eye, and decline to see any of them again, if none meet your high standards.” Nicolas whispered the last directly into Amaretta’s ear, and she burst out laughing.

“You are indeed devious, brother mine. Very well. If Mother can be clever enough to spring this on me, I can be clever enough to be polite and gracious as you say. There’s another thing you should be aware of, though.”

“Which is?” Nicolas asked.

There are a lot of single women, and some single men. I don’t think it’s just me that Mother’s parading today.”

I see.” That jolted Nicolas. There had never been any concern on his mother’s part previously that he was still unmarried. He took a deep breath. “In that case, I shall have to take my own advice. Not that I will get gifts.”

“I’ll see you later. I have a feeling this is going to be a long day.” Plastering a smile in place, Amaretta whirled her way around the main group of guests.

Watching her go, Nicolas sighed. This was meant to be Amaretta’s special day. He hoped his mother hadn’t ruined it for her.

A shout caught Nicolas’s attention as he wandered aimlessly around, a smile firmly fixed in place. Looking over to the far side of the garden, away from the main seats and tables, was a group of three men.

A low groan escaped Nicolas as he instantly recognized one of them. The younger son of one of the local country esquires, Jeremy waved as he saw Nicolas look round. Not particularly caring whether his smile looked even the slightest bit sincere, Nicolas ambled over to them.

“Hullo, old man. Your sister’s looking particularly attractive today.” Jeremy’s leering gaze slid up and down Nicolas’s body, but Nicolas was determined to ignore it.

Yes, she is. I hope you’re enjoying the day.” Nicolas was already preparing to turn away, when Jeremy slid off the fence on which he’d been sitting and swaggered over to Nicolas.

Bit of a surprise when the invite came. None of us know Amaretta. She’s not in our circles. You could be, though, Nicolas.” Jeremy stood close. Too close. Nicolas could feel the other man’s heat, but refused to back away.

“Not really.” Nicolas shrugged, as casually as he could manage. “I’m no rider.”

“We could teach you.” One of the other men called out. “Nothing like a good, exhilarating ride to set the blood pounding, eh, Jeremy?”

“That’s it exactly, Lucien.” Jeremy moved closer still. “You could join us, Nicolas. On the hunt.”

We’re always on the lookout for new prey when hunting. Any friend of Jeremy’s is a friend of ours.”

The predatory gleam in the men’s eyes as they stared at Nicolas spoke of a different kind of prey than foxes or rabbits, as did the unabashed lust in Jeremy’s.

You’ve caught me a little on the hop, gentlemen.” Nicolas kept his smile fixed in place as he took a step away from Jeremy. “Give me a little time to think about your … generous offer.”

“Don’t take too long, Nicolas.” Jeremy grasped hold of Nicolas, pulling him close. “We’re alike in some ways, you and I, but I’m not a patient man.”

No. I don’t expect that you are. Enjoy the party. I’ll get back to you soon, Jeremy.” Hurrying away, Nicolas shuddered. The last thing he wanted was to join that particular hunt.

Although Jeremy was the family’s youngest son, he had a lot of influence, both with his father and in the local community. Nicolas had long since hoped he’d escaped Jeremy’s attention. Perhaps instead of looking to join something locally, I need to make the trip into the city and be involved in a club there.

Although his mother might not be happy for Nicolas to spend time away from the family home, it was certainly a prudent move for him to consider.


Chapter Three


A few days passed following Amaretta’s birthday party, and things at home seemed to be back to normal as far as Nicolas was concerned. Well, at least, mostly back to normal. There was an undercurrent between his mother and sister that Nicolas felt, but no one had openly spoken of.

Safely ensconced in his workroom, Nicolas wondered about approaching Amaretta, when there was a tap on the door. Getting to his feet, Nicolas called out; “Come in.”

The door opened and a surly-faced Amaretta stomped in, followed by Poppet, as she’d named her mechanical pet, trotting at her feet.

“What is it?” Nicolas was normally left alone in his workshop. That Amaretta had sought him out was a bad sign.

If Mother asks me one more time if I’m thinking of marriage yet, I swear I’ll scream, Nicolas.” Amaretta stomped her foot, which set her auburn curls bouncing. “I even told her that I’d felt like my birthday party was a way for her to show me off like … like some prize cow to be bid upon.”

You don’t usually get so agitated.” Nicolas was shocked by Amaretta’s vehemence. His sister usually laughed off their mother’s question. Even Poppet kept her distance, the mechanical cocking her head from side to side as if following the conversation.

Although Nicolas and Amaretta generally shared the same easy-going disposition, at that moment, two spots of vivid red glowed brightly on Amaretta’s otherwise pallid cheeks, silently screaming her fury.

She’s not normally this persistent.” Amaretta paced back and forth, and her blue-green skirt and white petticoat whirled behind her like the waves of an angry, churning sea.

Nicolas was certain their mother had no idea how upset Amaretta was and didn’t like to see his sister so distressed.

Look, I’ll have a word with Mother, if you’d like. “Nicolas laid his hand on Amaretta’s arm, and she stopped pacing to look into his eyes, and finally gave a small smile.

No. I’ll be fine. I’m just … just…” Amaretta sighed heavily. “One of the ladies who came to my tea party has announced her daughter’s engagement. The girl’s two years younger than me, and I think it reminded Mother that I’m still an old maid. And I didn’t swoon into the arms of one of the men at my party.”

Not so old, if you please.” Nicolas smiled. “You’re only twenty-three. A good five years younger than me, and I’m still single.”

That got a genuine smile from Amaretta and she nudged Nicolas with her elbow.

If you reach thirty and are still unwed, I think Mother will invite every spinster within a fifty-mile radius of the house.”

Spinsters?” Nicolas clutched dramatically at this chest, a faux look of horror on his face, and Amaretta laughed out loud.

Well, perhaps she’ll get nowhere with spinsters. Bachelors, then.” Amaretta winked, and Nicolas responded by poking out his tongue. Just like his sister, Nicolas was happy to remain patient to find the right person to share his life.

With an almost girlish giggle, Amaretta enveloped him in a tight hug, and kissed his cheek.

Any man who hopes to capture my heart will need to have a sense of humor to rival yours, dear brother.”

“So long as he doesn’t share my ugliness, is that it?” Nicolas laughed at Amaretta’s indignant expression. He knew he was far from ugly, but since teasing Amaretta had drawn her out of her temper, Nicolas saw no reason to stop.

Well … I wouldn’t want him to have your big nose, or such a square chin with a dimple in its center.” By now Amaretta was giggling so hard she could hardly speak. Wiping away her tears of laughter, she gazed into Nicolas’s eyes. “I would do very well indeed, if I met a man as handsome as you, with a heart as generous. Thank you for cheering me up, Nicolas. I should be more patient with Mother. I forget that by my age, she had not only been married over a year, but was carrying her first child.”

Things were different in Mother’s day. There’s no disgrace these days in waiting for the right person. I must confess, Mother still speaks of me settling with a wife, despite all my affirmations that there won’t be another Mrs. Broadberry.”

She knows. I think she just can’t bring herself to say it out loud. I get the impression that by now, she imagined her life as a doting grandmother, with a loving husband at her side, not a widow with two unmarried adult children.”

“I’m sure you’re right Amaretta.” Nicolas nodded. “She only wants the best for us. The problem is, that her ideas and ours are very different.”

“Well, I’m thankful for such a loving brother. Come along, Poppet. Although I feel much better now, I think I’ll dodge Mother for a while.”

As his sister ambled away, Poppet at her feet, Nicolas smiled. His mother might mention wives, but she didn’t turn away when he spoke of a husband. Not that he would ever confess as much to even his sister, but there had been a couple of boyfriends in Nicolas’s life. But neither had developed into anything more than casual relationships.

Although he loved the country, Nicolas didn’t get much of an opportunity to meet many like-minded men as himself. Maybe membership of one of the more open-minded men’s clubs in the city would not only be a way of avoiding Jeremy, but also a way to discover new friends.

Or even love.

****

On his return to the house, the housemaid stopped Nicolas as he was about to go up to his room.

“Begging yer pardon, sir, but Lady Valentina would like to see you in the study.” The maid bobbed a curtsey and Nicolas nodded.

“Very well. Thank you.”

On entering the study, Nicolas sauntered over toward his mother who stood motionless, staring out through the French windows.

“You asked to see me, Mother?” The summons was unusual, as was his mother’s presence this early in the day. Normally she’d be out visiting one of her many friends, and only come home for dinner.

I did.” When his mother turned to face Nicolas, he was instantly struck by her pallor.

“Are you all right, Mother?” Nicolas reached out for her, but she pushed at him and walked quickly away.

“No. I am not. None of us are.”

I don’t understand.” Nicolas followed her, but kept a discreet distance. The only other time he’d seen his mother so obviously upset was at his father’s funeral. “What is it?”

I’ve had a letter. From the bank.” Lady Valentina paced back and forth, her hands clasped rigidly together. “The news is bad. Very bad indeed.” She stopped and finally met Nicolas’s gaze. “You father’s investments, the stocks and shares that provide us with our income. There’s been a … a crash, as the bank puts it. They’ve informed me that our shares … our shares are now worthless. There will be no more money coming in. Once what we have in the bank is gone, we’ll get no more.”

His mother’s voice finally cracked and as Nicolas rushed to take her in his arms, she broke down in tears. Nicolas was certain this was the reason his mother had been so persistent about finding Amaretta a suitable husband. She’d been, in her own way, trying to secure Amaretta’s future.

Don’t worry. We’ll manage. Somehow.” Nicolas infused his voice with as much confidence as he could muster. He had no idea what they could do, but it was past time his mother could shield him and Amaretta. When his sister returned home, they’d all need to talk.

You’re a good boy, Nicolas. Perhaps it was as well you didn’t marry. How would you support a wife now? Perhaps, despite all his arguments with your father, Uncle Secundus may prove to be a benefactor in our time of need?”

His mother looked up at Nicolas with tear-filled eyes and he couldn’t ignore her imploring gaze. He smiled and nodded, even though he held out very little hope that his uncle would suddenly become munificent in regards his brother’s family.

Oh, I’m sure he’ll do something, Mother. I’m sure he wouldn’t want to see you, or any of his family, destitute.” Nicolas wasn’t so certain of that, but he was certain that Secundus wouldn’t want his family’s name dragged down into the mud. He traded heavily on the name in the business world.

Unfortunately, while their grandfather’s legacy lent their name weight, it didn’t put money into the bank.

I suggest you contact him and organize a visit. All three of us will go. Now, don’t worry, Mother. If the stocks lost on the markets, they can gain, too. Leave them as they are, and between Amaretta and I, we’ll find a way.”

Yes. Thank you, Nicolas. Will you speak to Amaretta?” Lady Valentina hesitated at the door, dabbing her eyes with a lace handkerchief.

Yes, Mother. You get some tea and perhaps go and lie down for a while. You’ve been under a great strain. You should have told me sooner.” Nicolas couldn’t help but wonder whether anything might have been done to prevent the impending calamity. His mother wasn’t one for practicalities. She’d probably left everything in the hands of the bank, not realizing she was meant to keep an eye on how the shares were performing for herself.

Nicolas rubbed his face. It was far preferable that he told Amaretta. His sister wasn’t the dramatic sort. She’d take it well enough, there was no point trying to deny reality. Amaretta would probably take it better without Mother’s tears.

At least, Nicolas hoped she would.


Chapter Four


Secundus Broadberry’s house was everything Nicolas could imagine of his uncle. On the outskirts of the city, surrounded by a brick wall with tall, ornate iron gates, the house was large and imposing. Just like the man himself.

When the clockwork carriage halted at the end of the driveway, a liveried servant descended the stairs leading from the house and opened the carriage door. He offered a slight, stiff bow.

Mrs. Broadberry, I presume?” The servant looked them all up and down as they exited the carriage. His pinched face held such an expression of distaste that anyone would think they were beggars in rags, and Nicolas’s blood boiled.

Then you presume wrongly.” Nicolas stepped forward. “This is Lady Valentina Broadberry. Perhaps my uncle forgot to mention that Mother holds a title. I hope, in future, you do not.”

“My apologies.” This time the servant’s bow was a little lower, and the disdain had fled his expression when he straightened up. “Please, if you go up to the front door, I’ll be with you in a moment. The Master will take care of the cost of your cab.”

“Oh, how very generous of him.” Lady Valentina smiled, holding out her arm for Nicolas to take. “Let us go, Nicolas.”

“Yes, Mother.” Nicolas’s glare at the servant was matched by his sister’s. In some ways he and Amaretta were very much alike.

As if wanting to make amends for his error, the servant bounded up the stairs and indicated for them to precede him into the house. Once inside, the servant walked ahead of them and took them into, what Nicolas regarded as, an overstuffed, fussy sitting room.

Paintings and mirrors hung on walls with crimson-embossed, patterned wallpaper, thick red and gold curtains framed the windows, and in addition to the thickly padded sofa and chairs, there were multiple small tables, some laden with books, others adorned with plants, dotted around the room. It was all too crowded and fussy for Nicolas’s tastes

Although there was a large bookcase filled with books, Nicolas noticed they looked almost pristine, as if there just for show. He wondered if Secundus had actually read any of them.

“I’ll inform the Master you’re here. He’ll be with you presently.” The servant offered another bow as he closed the door.

What a stuffy room.” Amaretta sniffed loudly. “It’s musty, too. He doesn’t use it very often. From what Father used to say about him, I don’t think he entertains much. He remains unmarried, doesn’t he? Probably because he doesn’t want to spend his money on anyone but himself.”

Now, now.” Lady Valentina patted Amaretta’s knee. “Remember, he’s your father’s brother. And also remember we are in terrible financial hardship. We have funds enough to last us up to six months, but after that, nothing. We need to cultivate Secundus’s favor, not his antagonism.”

“Yes, Mother.” Amaretta looked over at Nicolas and rolled her eyes.

A hand in front of his mouth, Nicolas hid a smile. If Secundus expected Amaretta to be as docile as their mother, he was in for a rude awakening.

More than a couple of minutes ticked interminably by, and Nicolas was about to leave the room to find out what was happening, when the door opened and Secundus Broadberry made his entrance.

The man’s pudgy face held a sickly-sweet smile, and his thin, grey hair was waxed tight against his skull. As Secundus passed him by, Nicolas saw the heavy dusting of powder Secundus used to hide red, pock-marked cheeks. Nicolas suppressed a shiver. The man felt cold, not someone Nicolas felt inclined to trust, and his inner voice was seldom wrong.

My dear sister-in-law, it’s been such a long time since we last saw one another. And you brought your children. At times I find it hard to remember I’m an uncle to such a fine nephew and beautiful, charming niece.”

Why, thank you, Secundus.” Lady Valentina beamed at the compliments and, unseen by his uncle, it was Nicolas’s turn to roll his eyes.

Now, what can I do for you, Valentina?”

Well, it’s like this, Secundus. My husband invested his inheritance in shares. The bank has told me … told me…”

As his mother started to cry into her lace handkerchief, Nicolas stepped forward.

The shares have lost their value. We are in need of assistance, Uncle. Without financial aid, we shall soon be penniless.”

I see.” Secundus rubbed at his chin, his pale-eyed gaze travelling from Nicolas, to his mother, and finally to Amaretta. “So, you are asking for money. Is that it?”

It’s a brutal way of putting it, Uncle, but if we don’t get funds from somewhere, we’ll have no home. How would it look if it were known that the widow of your brother and her children were destitute?”

Secundus’s glare fixed on Nicolas who held his head high. “We haven’t been extravagant, we haven’t frittered away our father’s inheritance, Uncle. Through no direct fault of our own, we’re forced to seek the help of our closest family. We are not expecting you to finance us for life. We need help, we need somewhere to live and a way to get ourselves out of this predicament.”

“Indeed.” Secundus glanced back at Amaretta, then nodded slowly. “Do you have accommodation in town?”

“No, Secundus.” Valentina spoke up. “We didn’t wish the expense.”

Of course not. Very well. You may stay here the night and I will go to my club. While I’m away, I shall give careful consideration to your request and what may be done to help you. I’ll inform my servant. You may also dine here. Until tomorrow, my dear sister-in-law.” Secundus inclined his head at Lady Valentina, then left the room.

“I doubt we can rely on his charity, Mother.” Nicolas shook his head.

“Oh, give him a chance, Nicolas. We can stay here. Surely Secundus won’t see his own family on the streets.”

Perhaps not.” Nicolas sighed. His mother only wanted to think the best of Secundus or, more likely, couldn’t bring herself to contemplate the worst. Ignoring a difficult situation had always been her coping mechanism.

We should find an inexpensive hotel, Mother.” Amaretta stood up and hugged herself as she looked around. “I don’t like it here.”

Nonsense.” Lady Valentina sniffed loudly. “We don’t have money to squander. Here, we have accommodation and food. Secundus is being a most generous host, and I’m sure that tomorrow we’ll find he has a plan to take care of us.”

Very well, Mother.” Amaretta sat back down.

Nicolas turned at the knock on the door and the servant came in.

“My name is Willis and the Master has instructed me to prepare rooms for you. If you remain here, I’ll get them ready. Dinner is served at six on the dot, and I retire for the night at eight. I’ll return presently.”

“May we have some tea?” Lady Valentina called out as Willis stared to back out.

“I shall make some once your rooms are ready, ma’am.”

“Oh, very well.” Lady Valentina sighed, but Willis just closed the door.

“Obviously Uncle Secundus manages with just a single manservant, Mother. He can’t be in two places at once.” Nicolas ambled to the bookcase, perusing the books it held and examining them carefully to see if they were read or for show.

“I suppose so. But I feel the need for some tea to settle my nerves.” Lady Valentina huffed her impatience.

“Then you’ll just have to wait. Remember, we are only guests here.” Nicolas glanced over his shoulder. His mother sat ramrod straight in her chair. Nicolas focused his attention on the books and wished Secundus wasn’t drawing out their discomfit. He had a feeling they weren’t going to like whatever plan Secundus had for their future.



Chapter Five


A rap at his door woke Nicolas from sleep, and a disembodied voice called out; “Good morning, Master Nicolas. Breakfast will be ready in precisely forty-five minutes. Please be ready in the dining room at eight-thirty on the dot.”

Thank you, Willis.” Nicolas rubbed at his eyes, then glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. He was surprised he’d slept so deeply, but then again, he’d lain awake until the early hours, trying to come up with ways to avoid becoming dependent in any way on Secundus Broadberry.

If he had financial backing, he might make a living out of his skills as a tinker. But he knew of no one he could approach and had no experience of a business to simply consider finding a way on his own.

With a soft groan, Nicolas got out of bed. The mattress here had been much softer than his own, and his back protested loudly as he shuffled to the door to take the thick, plaid dressing gown from its peg. Shrugging it on over his nightshirt, Nicolas made his way along the hallway to the bathroom.

The feel of the hot water as he washed helped Nicolas feel more human and alert. Back in his room, Nicolas dressed, then went downstairs to the dining room. Amaretta and his mother were already at the table, drinking tea. When Nicolas joined them, Lady Valentina poured a cup and set it before him.

“Good morning, Nicolas. I hope you slept well. According to Willis, Secundus is speaking to some business associates this morning and is expected to return here after lunch. It sounds very positive, don’t you think?”

Unsure whether it was positive or not, Nicolas smiled and nodded. “Yes, Mother. I’m sure he has something planned.”

“We are to stay here and wait.” Lady Valentina picked up her cup and took a sip. “He’s been very accommodating so far.”

Very.” Nicolas added a splash of milk to his tea along with three lumps of sugar. At least Secundus hadn’t scrimped on their meals.

The door opened, and Willis wheeled in a trolley with several covered dishes. He set them out along the sideboard which already held the plates, and the silverware was already set out on the table.

“Do help yourselves. I shall be back in precisely forty-five minutes to clear the table.” Willis gave a quick bow, then wheeled the trolley from the room.

Nicolas, dear, will you see what we have?”

Yes, Mother.” Nicolas looked under each cloche and served as his mother and Amaretta requested. Although he was happy enough with the food offered and its quality, Nicolas’s appetite was soured by the impending return of his uncle.

Since his father and Secundus had never been close, Nicolas had met his uncle on just a handful of occasions during his childhood. Meeting him yesterday hadn’t filled Nicolas with any optimism that Secundus was the kind of man who had a generous heart.

But there was little Nicolas could do except wait. Nor could he shake the feeling that whatever Secundus offered them, it would be far from his mother’s expectations.

****

Exactly an hour after Willis had cleared lunch away, Nicolas, Lady Valentina, and Amaretta were back in Secundus’s sitting room. Too nervous to sit, Nicolas preferred to stand behind the settee on which his mother and sister sat.

As the previous day, Secundus kept them waiting before making his appearance. He closed the door behind him, but didn’t come far into the room itself.

“You came to me looking for assistance, my dear sister-in-law. And I have worked to ensure you shall have it.”

Thank you, Secundus…” Lady Valentina started to speak, but Secundus held up a hand.

“Do let me finish. Yesterday and this morning, I’ve been in contact with business associates. Obviously both Nicolas and Amaretta will need work.”

Work?” Lady Valentina repeated the word and shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“Don’t worry, Mother.” Nicolas laid his hand on her shoulder. “It’s not unexpected in my case, although I thought you may at least allow my sister to keep my mother company, Uncle.”

I am not a charity, nephew. My brother made his decisions, I made mine. I cannot be held responsible for problems created by his choices. I have a house you may have, but you will pay rent to live there. You will also need food and to pay for other necessities. Therefore, both you and Amaretta will doubtless need to work. Unless you have a job lined up enabling you to support them?” Secundus raised a sparse, grey eyebrow, his lips curved into a malicious smirk.

“No. I do not. Yet.” Nicolas gritted his teeth. He had a feeling his uncle was far from finished with them.

I have an associate who owns a millinery shop. I’m certain Amaretta will fit in well there. It’s also a perfectly suitable place of employment for a young lady. As for you, Nicolas. I have something a bit special in mind for you. You and I can discuss it in private once everything else is settled.”

Very well.” Nicolas would do most anything Secundus organized for him to enable him to provide for his mother and sister. At least in the short term.

I will offer you accommodation, I will ensure you have food enough, and I will even withhold charging rent, until such time as both Nicolas and Amaretta have been employed for a month, Lady Valentina. That will be time enough for them to get some money in the bank to be able to support you.”

Is that the best you can offer us, Secundus? We are your family.” Lady Valentina rose to her feet, holding out her hands to Secundus, who kept his own resolutely at his sides.

“Consider yourself fortunate I give you this much. Some would let you rot on the streets.”

At his mother’s distressed gasp, Nicolas balled his hands into fists, ready to punch Secundus’s smug face. But before he could act, Amaretta was already moving.

“Uncle Secundus, it is said actions speak louder than words.” Amaretta slipped past Nicolas, swinging her skirt as she did. The motion of her dress diverted Secundus’s attention, and as he looked down, Amaretta slapped him.

The crack was loud in the sudden silence, and Secundus’s cheek clearly bore the outline of Amaretta’s hand.

My brother and I shall work. We shall support our mother. And we will find a way to save you from having to concern yourself about our situation.”

“A lesser man would punish you for that.” Secundus’s eyes narrowed, and his voice was like ice, but Nicolas was proud of the way Amaretta stared him down.

You only care about your own reputation. You forgot mother has a title of her own, and care only how badly it would reflect on you if we became paupers.” Nicolas came to stand beside Amaretta, laying his hand on her shoulder. “You offer us nothing more than the bare minimum, to keep your own face, not because you have a shred of familial love or moral fiber in your body. We’ll take the jobs you find for us, and, as Amaretta says, will work our way out of your debt, and your life.”

Such ingratitude.” Secundus shrugged and turned his back. “The house is yours, but you will pay the rent one month from the day you take occupancy. I’ll have a contract drawn by my solicitor. I will not renege on the offer. But thereafter, you will not miss one single payment to me, or Nicolas will be thrown into debtor’s prison. I’ll have a servant collect you to sign the contract, Lady Valentina.”

“I won’t sign it. I will not allow you to hold Nicolas responsible in that way.” Nicolas’s mother rose to her feet, but Nicolas held up his hand.

If the people you’ve recommended as employers fulfil their duty, we will fulfil ours, Uncle. Mother, ensure that is included in any contract you sign. We cannot be accountable for an employer’s failure to pay us as we are due.”


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