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Tansley Village, Derbyshire
July 1816the year without summer
"What does the letter say, Mama?" Harriet ducked as her mother cast the missive aside, scattering sheets of paper around her bedroom. Alarm bells clanged in Harriet's mind. If it were good news, Mama wouldn't carry on so. Harriet gathered the foolscap sheets into a bundle, scrutinizing the bold handwriting scrawled across each page.
"They refuse to help us. Your father's own family. And what are we to do? What is left to us? I vow I am a prisoner in this dreadful cottage." Mama burst into angry tears.
How many times had Mama cried over the past year since Papa died? Harriet had long ago lost count. Their lives had gone from easy pleasantness to perpetual sorrow in just a few short months. Nowwell, they had all poured their last hopes into assistance from Papa's family, and Mama's hysteria was frightening. 'Twas time to grasp control of the situation, and steady her mother's nerves.
With the expert precision borne of months of practice, Harriet flicked open the bottle of smelling salts on Mama's bedside table. The acrid smell filled the little chamber, causing her eyes and nose to burn.
"Here, Mama," Harriet murmured gently, trying to hold the vial under her nose. But Mama knocked it aside with a brusque gesture. Goodness, was it broken? Harriet scrambled after the bottle. No, but it had spilled. That was a waste they couldn't afford. Harriet sponged the solution with her handkerchief, wringing the cloth against the lip of the jar. She had to salvage as much of it as she could.
"Rose," she called to the family's faithful remaining servant, "could you please bring Mama some chamomile tea?" Sometimes the chamomile worked when the smelling salts didn't.
"Of course, dearie," Rose called back, banging the kettle in the kitchen below.
"Mama." Harriet placed the bottle back on the dressing table and sank onto the foot of her mother's creaky mahogany bed. "Even if the Handleys won't help us, I know Captain Brookes will. You know he has inherited the estate after his brother's death. He's a wealthy man now, and when Sophie marries him, I am sure he will see to our welfare."
"This whole situation is absurd." Mama lay back on her pillows, tears streaming down her cheeks. "I am Lady Handley, after all. I am no longer Cecile Varnay. I should need no one's assistance. I should have to depend on no one's sense of duty. Your father was wealthy beyond measure."
"Papa died bankrupt." The harsh words fell before Harriet thought them through, and she scrambled to lighten her tone. "Thanks to his vast library, I am an educated woman. But you know as well as I do, Mama, that we spent it all. On books or on jewels, it makes no difference now."
Mama turned on her side, away from Harriet. A brief knock on the door announced Rose's arrival with the tea tray.
"Here you go, my lady."
"I don't want it. Take it away." Mama buried her face in a lumpy pillow.
Harriet sighed. Usually the smelling salts or the chamomile tea did the trick, but this hysteria wouldn't back down. There was one last resort. She shrank from using it, because it cost so much, but there was nothing else that could be done. "Rose, if you please, go fetch Dr. Wallace. He can be here quickly if he's not out on another call."
"That's a good idea, dearie." Rose patted Harriet's shoulder and ran downstairs.
The floorboards squeaked in protest as Harriet paced the length of Mama's bedroom, seeking the solution to their problems. Mama's sobs had eased until she fell asleep, and that suited Harriet just fine. As she slept, Harriet racked her brain for a way out of their situation. They had to have money. Some other means of security than her sister's possible marriage. All of their possessions were gone. What was left? Harriet's head began to pound. There had to be a way they could survive. Harriet caught a glimpse of her reflection in the cracked mirror over Mama's vanity. Her face, drawn and pale, contrasted sharply with her eyes, which had darkened to an inky blue. Distracted, she tried to tuck a few of her dark brown locks back into their pins. She looked as disastrous as the situation she now faced.
A commotion sounded in the front entry. Relief washed over Harriet as she recognized a gruff, masculine voice that must belong to Dr. Wallace. She hurried down the stairs to meet him.
He strode into the tiny vestibule, dumping his black leather bag on the rickety bench at the foot of the stairs. Harriet steadied the bench and glanced at his wrinkled but kindly visage. "Oh, Doctor, thank you for coming. We don't know what to do with my mothershe took ill and finally cried herself to sleep."
He didn't spare her a glance, or any common courtesies. "Well, I'll have to awaken her to do a proper examination. What caused this outburst of hysteria?" he grumbled as he dug through his case, bringing forth a small vial.
"She received a letter that made her most upset." Hopefully that was enough explanation to satisfy him. She refrained from revealing the entire sordid tale.
With a curt nod, he hurried up the stairs.
Rose embraced Harriet, holding her as tenderly as a mother. "Come into the kitchen, dearie. We'll have a nice cup of tea." Drinking in Rose's steadfast strength, Harriet leaned on her, allowing the old servant to lead her away.
After an agonizing half hour, Dr. Wallace entered the kitchen, wiping his hands on his handkerchief. Harriet leaped from her chair. "Is is she all right?"
He leaned against the doorframe and gave her a curt nod. "Sit down, Miss Handley. You look a bit peaked yourself."
Harriet complied, but grasped her teacup, hoping the movement would steady her hands.
The doctor peered at her from under his grizzled eyebrows. "I'll come straight to the point. Your mother is suffering from a bout of nervous hysteria." A deep frown creased the corners of his mouth. "Rest is the best thing for her at the moment. I've given her laudanum and I want you to administer more whenever the hysteria returns."
"Yes, Dr. Wallace. Is there anything else I can do?"
"If there could be a change in your mother's situation, it would be best. Something more like the style of living she knew. Are there any relatives who would take her in?" He folded his handkerchief and stuffed it back into his pocket.
"None that speak to us, sir."
The doctor was already turning to leave. "Too bad. It's her best chance. Work on that, my girl. And keep giving her the laudanum." He wagged a warning finger at her.
Harriet swallowed. She must improve Mama's situation. The Handleys wouldn't lift a hand to help, so 'twas up to her to make things right. Squaring her shoulders, she pronounced, "I shall persevere, Dr. Wallace."
Rose pushed Harriet out the door. "Go for a breath of fresh air, dearie. The doctor was rightyou do look peaked. Ramble over to the millpond and back, there's a good girl."
She breathed deeply of the damp afternoon grasses, which smelled sweet as they dried in the pale afternoon sun. She meandered up the hill toward the pond, a large, flat oval that glinted in the sunshine. The moor grass tugged at her skirts, catching her hem, slowing her progress. Gazing out over the scrubby trees, Harriet paused for a moment, bowing her head in prayer.
Dear Father, please show me the way. I don't know what to do. Help me find the answers.
As a woman, her options were limited, but still, there had to be a way she could prevail. At one time, she thought she would become an authoress, but that idea died along with her father. He encouraged her writing, but Mama called it a dreadful waste of time. Could some sort of position be the answer to her prayers?
The bright jingle of a bridle pierced her reverie as a horse and rider approached. Harriet glanced over at the pair, as they crossed the field by the millpond, the black horse stamping easily through the tall grass. She frowned, her mind fixated upon her troubles. She was in no mood for politesse.
But waitthat man was familiar. He wore an army uniform with the same careless assurance that a dandy might wear an outrageous cravat. Her pulse skittered. Something was not right about his leg, though. His muscles didn't flex with the movements of his mount, yet his hands grasped the reins easily, as though he were born to the saddle.
She smoothed her hands over her wrinkled attire. Why hadn't she put on something more attractive than her lavender gown? Too many washdays had left the once-pretty dress worn and limp with age. She was perfectly attired for housekeeping, not for social graces.
The soldier reined in the horse and gazed down at her, a brief smile touching his lips. A faint scar zigzagged across his chin. She was gawping at his handsome yet rugged visage. Where were her manners? She shut her mouth with a snap.
Dismounting with care, he limped toward her, extending one gloved hand. "Miss Handley?"
"Sir?" Harriet bobbed a quick curtsy as she clasped his hand. Who was he?
"Don't you remember me? I am Captain Brookes."
"Oh!" Harriet gasped. Where was the dashing young lad who swept Sophie off her feet? Standing before her was a square-jawed man with a somber expression in his gray-green eyes. He had little in common with the wild youth she remembered. She picked up the pieces of her shattered composure. "I am so happy to see you home safe, Captain. My family will want to see you again. Have you been home long?"
"I settled in Tansley yesterday. I am home to set up house in Brookes Park and to clear up my brother's business affairs, but I haven't yet had time to make social calls."
"We were very sorry to hear of his passing, Captain." She dropped her gaze, staring in fascination at the burrs clinging to her skirt.
"Thank you." He offered his arm, and she allowed him to guide her back down the hill toward the cottage. He tucked the reins into his other hand, leading his black mount along beside them. Harriet slowed her steps to match his pace. Was he always this tall? Her head didn't even reach his shoulder. And his shoulderswere they always so broad? Being in the army made a boy into a man.
His touch burned through her sleeve. She needed a distraction, anything to curb her reactions to his presence and his touch. She cleared her throat. "I'm sure you saw a lot of Belgium, sir, what did you think of the country?"
"Not too much, I confess. Most of it was spent on horseback or slogging through the rain and mud. I spent some time at a home in Brussels."
"Brussels? The dispatches never mentioned that. I thought you remained at Waterloo."
"No, the surrounding villages were too crowded to contain all of the wounded, you know. The townspeople collected many of us who were injured." His eyes darkened to gray, and his lips stretched into a taut line.
"So, you didn't stay in a hospital?" The Handley girls were never privy to what happened after he was nearly killed at Waterloo.
"No, the hospital was full. I spent much of my time recuperating in the home of a Belgian merchant. I I did not see much of the city, though " His jaw tightened and he fell silent.
His brief tale had carried her away. Her fingers itched to write it all down. What a fascinating book it might make. Did his injuries cause the changes she observed in him, or his entire experience in the war? But asking such a question would be beyond rude. She had to find a more well-mannered response.
"How good of them to save you and your men." A feeble response, but a polite one. She stumbled on a rock in the path, and he gripped her, steadying her until she found her footing. A tingle zipped up her arm at the pressure of his gloved hand.
"Yes." The curtness of his reply signaled the end of the interview.
They meandered on in silence, over the rolling hills leading to the village. Birds twittered and flitted through the scrubby trees, and a cool breeze ruffled the moor grass. Brookes paused, gazing out over the vista. "I've missed this."
He had a wonderful voice with a dark and husky tone. But his responses were altogether too brief. Could she draw him out more? She smiled. "Beautiful, isn't it? There's nothing so pretty as a Derbyshire view. I come out here often. I feel closer to God out here."
"Closer to God?" He looked down at her, a harsh light kindled in his eyes.
"Yes. On the hilltop, it's easier to feel closer to Him, as though I can touch the sky."
He shrugged his shoulders. "I didn't know a view could inspire such reveries."
Was he mocking her? She must have sounded lonely, like an old maid with no one but seven cats to talk to. After all, Brookes certainly wasn't her confidant. Harriet gave herself a brisk mental shake.
They continued slowly down the hill. Harriet halted, regaining her sense of decorum as they neared the cottage door. "My sister is away from home this afternoon, Captain. She is visiting a friend in Riber. But if you would care to call tomorrow, she will be home."
"I shall be delighted to see all of your family. Until then?" He released her arm and touched his fingers to his brow in a brief salute.
"Until then, Captain." She bobbed a curtsy.