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Seven years later
Elizabeth Wellingford Lowery stood in her studio, brush in hand as she focused on the play of light across the flower in the vase on her worktable.
If she blocked out everything but the change of hues painted across the flower's surface by the ebb and flow of the clouds in the sky outside her window, she might be able to keep out of consciousness for a little longer the bitter awareness that her life had crumbled into pieces.
She should be able to concentrate. She always painted this time of the morning, while the northern light remained steady, often becoming so absorbed in her work she forgot to stop for nuncheon.
How often had Everitt had to knock at that door and come in to collect her? Her heart squeezed in another spasm of grief as she recalled how he'd approach her, a teasing smile on his careworn face as he coaxed her to put down her brush and join him and their son David for a light mid-day meal.
She needed sustenance lest she slip away, as ethereal as the angel she appeared to be, he'd tell her, giving a loving tug to whichever strand of golden hair had escaped from the careless chignon into which she always twisted it.
But he was the one who had slipped away unexpectedly, taking her secure world with him.
She didn't want to leave her studio, didn't want to emerge into the tangle of duties beyond that door where she would have to face how much everything had changed. Even after a month, it was still too much to deal with, losing the kindest man who'd ever lived, who'd cared for her as if she were a precious object too fine and delicate for life on earth. Amelia Lowery, his elderly cousin who'd run their household with great efficiency, had been so incapacitated by the shock of Everitt's death that, despite her own dismay and grief, Elizabeth had insisted the older woman give up her work and rest, and was therefore compelled to supervise tasks she'd never before had to oversee. To add to all of that, her entire family had gone on a long-delayed Grand Tour of the Continent barely a week before Everitt's untimely death.
Aside from Amelia, Everitt had no other close relations, so, with her own family out of reach, she'd had no one to turn to, no one to help her bear the agony and the crushing responsibility. The only thing that made life endurable was being able to escape for a few hours every morning into this haven where she might blank from her mind all but the task of capturing with her brush the shape and substance and hue of the subject on her worktable.
Leaving David confined upstairs with his nurse. Her chest tightened again with grief and guilt. He was suffering too, her precious son, missing the papa who had doted on him as lovingly as he had doted on her. How could she help him when she couldn't even help herself?
Tears welled in her eyes. Angrily she dashed them. Enough! She must pull herself out of this mire of grief and self-pity.
Some day soon she would do better, she promised herself. She'd wake to a new day without the constant, crushing weight of sadness on her chest. But for now, she would fix her mind only on the pure intensity of the hue in the flower before her.
A soft rap sounded at the door. For an instant, her spirits soared before the realisation settled like a rock in her gut. It couldn't be Everitt. It would never again be Everitt.
She took a deep breath as Sands, her butler, bowed himself in. 'Sorry to disturb you, madam, but well, 'tis nearly a month since the beginning of the quarter and none of the staff have yet been paid. I've tried to stifle their grumbling, knowing how overset you've been, but it would be best if you would take care of compensating them.'
Elizabeth stared at Sands as if he'd been speaking in tongues. 'Compensating them?' she echoed blankly.
'Normally the staff are paid at the start of every quarter,' he explained patiently. 'From a cache of coins the master kept in the locked chest in the bookroom.'
Naturally the servants would be wanting their money. But she'd had no idea about quarter day, nor had she the faintest notion what amounts were owed to the various members of her household.
Where could she find such information?
'Madam?' Sands prompted, recalling her attention. 'I suppose I could go and ask Miss Amelia'
'No, you were right to come to me,' Elizabeth interrupted. 'Miss Lowery must have absolute rest, the physician said, if she is to recover from her attack. Of course everyone must be paid. Thank you for bringing the matter to my attention.'
His task accomplished, the butler turned to leave. 'Oh, Sands!' she recalled him. 'Are there any coins in the master's chest at present?'
'I have no idea, ma'am.'
'Very well. And do you know where my husband kept the key?'
'I believe it is in the top-right drawer of his desk, Mrs Lowery.'
'The the amount of each person's salary,' she continued, painfully embarrassed by her ignorance. 'Where might I find that?'
'I expect it would be recorded in one of the ledgers on the master's desk. Or his man of business might have a list. Would you like nuncheon served in an hour?'
Numbly she nodded. 'In an hour. Yes, that would be fine.'
Sympathy in his eyes, the butler bowed again and went out, softly closing the door behind him. Elizabeth put down the brush she was still holding and sank into a chair.
What if she could not find the right ledger? What if there was no more money in the chest? How was she to obtain more? Oh, she did not want to deal with this!
If only, after her marriage to Everitt, she had insisted upon taking over some of the housekeeping duties Miss Lowery performed so well, she wouldn't be this lost and unprepared. But one look at Amelia's anxious face as she curtsied to Elizabeth when the newly-wedded couple arrived in London, the elderly spinster's fingers twisting nervously in the fabric of her gown as she assured Elizabeth she quite understood the new bride would want to assume the management of her own household, and Elizabeth knew she could never wrest away from her husband's poor relation the task that gave her such satisfaction. Especially not after Everitt confided to her that, the Lowery family possessing few close kinsmen, Amelia Lowery really had nowhere else to go.
Which brought her back to her present problem. She drew a shuddering breath.
It was only a list of employees. It was only a supply of coin. She could manage this. She could.
She'd look in the bookroom later. After nuncheon. For now, it was still painting time. She would remain here in this tranquil space for just a little longer. Smoothing her dull black skirts with a trembling hand, she rose and walked to her easel.
Before she could pick her brush back up, there was another knock at the door and Sands peeped in. 'Sir Gregory Holburn to see you, madam. Do you wish to receive him?'
Her immediate response was to refuse, but she bit it back. She'd not met her late husband's closest friend since the funeral more than a month ago, an event that, transpiring as it had in a blur of shock and misery, she scarcely remembered.
She hadn't stepped a foot outside the house after returning from the interment. And since Everitt had cared more for collecting his antiquities than for mingling with society and she had cared about mingling in society not at all, with her family out of England, she'd not had any callers.
Sir Gregory had always treated her kindly, almost like an avuncular uncle. He would worry if she refused to meet him.
With a sigh she stripped off the full-length apron she wore to save her gown from the worst of the paint spatters. 'Very well. Show him to the blue salon and tell him I'll join him shortly.'
She walked to the small mirror over her workbench, frowning as she scraped back the loose strands of hair and tucked them into the chignon. Her face was pale, her eyes dull. Everitt would say she looked like she was going into a decline.
And so I am, without you, my dear, she whispered softly. Gritting her teeth against another swell of useless grief, she forced a smile to her lips and headed for the blue salon.
Sir Gregory jumped to his feet as she entered. A tall, well-built man in his fortieth year, his light brown hair as yet showed no trace of grey, unlike the silver-tinted locks of Everitt, who'd been five years his senior. Friends from their youth, the two men had grown up in the same area of Oxfordshire and attended the same college.
His light brown eyes lighting with pleasure, Sir Gregory took the hand she offered and kissed it. 'How have you been getting on? I'm sorry not to have come sooner; estate business at Holburn Hall kept me tied up longer than I'd expected.'
'I hope everything is going well there,' Elizabeth said politely.
Absently she wondered how Everitt's neighbouring property, Lowery Manor, was faring. Since their marriage, they'd spent little time there, her husband preferring to reside in London where he might more easily acquire items for his collection.
'Some difficulties with the planting, but well enough.' Eyeing her more closely, he shook his head. 'You look tired and careworn. Is Miss Lowery still confined to her bed and unable to assist? My poor Lizbet, I knew I should have come back sooner to check on you!'
'How kind of you,' Elizabeth replied, acknowledging his concern. 'I'm afraid Miss Lowery is so far from recovered she must not even think of returning to her duties. I get on well enough, I suppose, though it is difficult.' She attempted a smile. 'So many things to do! Reviewing menus, inspecting linens, checking silver, ordering coalI had no idea how much was required to run a household. Did you know there are at least seventeen different recipes for preparing chicken?'
'Seventeen?' He chuckled. 'Who would have thought?'
'And where does one obtain the coin to pay one's servants?' She shook her head and sighed. 'Miss Lowery and Everitt spoiled me dreadfully, I'm discovering.'
Holburn took her hand and patted it. 'Dear lady, you are too young and lovely to trouble yourself with such trivialities! Now that I've returned to London, I do hope you'll allow me to lift some of those burdens from your shoulders.' Letting go of her fingers, he extracted a small purse from the pocket of his coat. 'How much coin do you need for the servants?'
Tempting as it was to transfer all her tiresome duties into his willing hands, Elizabeth hesitated. Husband's best friend notwithstanding, there was no link of kinship between them whatsoever. She could not but feel it went beyond the limits of what was proper to accept any of his kindly offered assistance. Without doubt, she knew she must not take money from him, even as a temporary loan.
'That won't be necessary, Sir Gregory, although I do thank you for offering. You must ignore my hen-hearted complaining! I shall learn to manage soon enough.'
'You are sure?' When she nodded, he continued, 'Very well, I shall do nothingthis time. But my offer stands. I should be honoured to assist you in any way, at any time.'
As the mantel clock chimed the hour, she rose. David would be waiting for her, anxious for his nuncheon. 'Should you like to join us for some light refreshment?'
'You will take it with your son?'
'Yes. By noon he's grown quite peckish.'
'I fear I must decline. Another time, perhaps?'
'Of course.' She escorted him from the parlour, secretly relieved he'd refused the invitation she'd felt obligated to offer. But Sir Gregory did not enjoy childrenand David, perhaps sensing as children often do the attitude of the adults around them, most decidedly did not like Sir Gregory.
Some time this afternoon, she still must solve the riddle of paying her servants. Turning her visitor over to Sands, with a longing glance in the direction of her studio, Elizabeth walked upstairs to find her son.
In his bachelor quarters on the other side of Mayfair, Hal Waterman frowned at the notice printed in the newspaper. Having returned to London just last evening after spending two months monitoring a new canal project in the north, he was still sorting through the journals and correspondence that had accumulated in his absence.
Carrying the paper with him, Hal dropped into the chair by the fireplace where his valet Jeffers had left him a glass of wine, gratefully settling back against its wide, custom-designed cushions. Taller and more powerfully built than most of his countrymen, after his sojourn in assorted inns over the last weeks, he was thoroughly tired of trying to sleep in beds too short for his long legs and sit in wing chairs too narrow for his broad shoulders.
Scanning the notice again, he sighed. Mr Everitt Lowery, it read, of Lowery Manor in Oxfordshire and Green Street in London, unexpectedly expired in this city on the seventh inst. almost six weeks ago now. Surviving him are his widow, Elizabeth, née Wellingford, and one son, David.
Elizabeth. Even now, seven years after his first glimpse of her at the wedding of his friend Nicholas to her sister Sarah, the whisper of her name reverberated through his mind, exciting a tingling in his nerves and a stirring in his loins.
Despite knowing Nicky's wedding service had been about to begin, he'd barely been able to keep himself from bolting from the room that long-ago day. As it was, drenched in panic, he'd had to station himself as far from the enchanting Elizabeth as the confines of the parlour allowed, remaining at the reception afterwards only until he deemed it was politely possible to excuse himself.
Until he had encountered Elizabeth Wellingford, armoured by a lifetime of scornful treatment at the elegant hands of his beautiful mother, he'd thought himself immune to those pinnacles of perfect female form who so easily enslaved the men around them. Which, for Hal, made Elizabeth Wellingford the most dangerous woman in England. Even knowing what she could and probably would do to him, he'd still been mesmerised.
The only sensible response was to stay as far away from her as possible. Over the intervening years, keeping that resolve turned out to be easier than he'd first feared, given that her sister had married his best friend. A few months after Nicky's nuptials, shunning a Season, Elizabeth Wellingford had chosen to wed a family friend she'd known all her life, a gentleman more than twenty years her senior.
So, fortunately for his piece of mind, the bewitching Elizabeth had never joined the ranks of the hopefuls on the Marriage Mart, that small section of ton society in which his mother took greatest interest.