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Roselynd on the Bodmin Moor, Cornwall
February 25, 1795
"The count was a beloved father, a beloved husband, and he will be sorely missed." The parson paused, gazing out on the crowd of mourners. "May he rest eternally in peace. Amen."
"Amen," the mourners murmured.
Pain stabbed through Evelyn's heart. It was a bright sunny day, but frigidly cold, and she could not stop shivering. She stared straight ahead, holding her daughter's hand, watching as the casket was being lowered into the rocky ground. The small cemetery was behind the parish church.
She was confused by the crowd. She hadn't expected a crowd. She barely knew the village innkeeper, the dressmaker or the cooper. She was as vaguely acquainted with their two closest neighbors, who were not all that close, as the house they had bought two years ago sat in solitary splendor on the Bodmin Moor, and was a good hour from everyone and anyone. In the past two years, since retreating from London to the moors of eastern Cornwall, they had kept to themselves. But then, Henri had been so ill. She had been preoccupied with caring for him and raising their daughter. There had not been time for social calls, for teas, for supper parties.
How could he leave them this way? Had she ever felt so alone? Grief clawed at her; so did fear. What were they going to do? Thump. Thump. Thump.
She watched the clods of dirt hitting the casket as they were shoveled from the ground into the grave. Her heart ached terribly; she could not stand it. She already missed Henri. How would they survive? There was almost nothing left!
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Evelyn's eyes suddenly flew open. She was staring at the gold starburst plaster on the white ceiling above her head; she was lying in bed with Aimee, cuddling her daughter tightly as they slept.
She had been dreaming, but Henri was truly dead.
Henri was dead.
He had died three days ago and they had just come from the funeral. She hadn't meant to take a nap, but she had lain down, just for a moment, beyond exhaustion, and Aimee had crawled into bed with her. They had cuddled, and suddenly, she had fallen asleep
Grief stabbed through her chest. Henri was gone. He had been in constant pain these past few months. The consumption had become so severe, he could barely breathe or walk, and these past weeks, he had been confined to his bed. Come Christmastime, they had both known he was dying.
And she knew he was at peace now, but that did not ease her suffering, even if it eased his. And what of Aimee? She had loved her father. And she had yet to shed a tear. But then, she was still just eight years old, and his death probably did not seem real.
Evelyn fought tearswhich she had thus far refused to shed. She knew she must be strong for Aimee, and for those who were dependent on herLaurent, Adelaide and Bette. She looked down at her daughter and softened instantly. Aimee was fair, dark-haired and beautiful. But she was also highly intelligent, with a kind nature and a sweet disposition. No mother could be as fortunate, Evelyn thought, overcome with the power of her emotions.
Then she sobered, aware of the voices she could just barely hear, coming from the salon below her bedroom. She had guests. Her neighbors and the villagers had come to pay their respects. Her aunt, uncle and her cousins had attended the funeral, of course, even though they had only called on her and Henri twice since they had moved to Roselynd. She would have to greet them, too, somehow, even though their relationship remained unpleasant and strained. She must find her composure, her strength and go downstairs. There was no avoiding her responsibility.
But what were they going to do now?
Dread was like a fist in her chest, sucking all the air out of her lungs. It turned her stomach over. And if she allowed it, there would be panic.
Carefully, not wanting to awaken her child, Evelyn D'Orsay slid from the bed. As she got up slowly, tucking her dark hair back into place while smoothing down her black velvet skirts, she was acutely aware that the bedroom was barely furnishedmost of Roselynd's furnishings had been pawned off.
She knew she should not worry about the future or their finances now. But she could not help herself. As it turned out, Henri had not been able to transfer a great deal of his wealth to Britain before they had fled France almost four years earlier. By the time they had left London, they had run down his bank accounts so badly that they had finally settled on this house, in the middle of the stark moors, as it had been offered at a surprisingly cheap price and it was all they could afford.
She reminded herself that at least Aimee had a roof over her head. The property had come with a tin mine, which was not doing well, but she intended to investigate that. Henri had never allowed her to do anything other than run his household and raise their daughter, so she was completely ignorant when it came to his finances, or the lack thereof. But she had overheard him speaking with Laurent. The war had caused the price of most metals to go sky-high, and tin was no exception. Surely there was a way to make the mine profitable, and the mine had been one reason Henri had decided upon this house.
She had but a handful of jewels left to pawn.
But there was always the gold.
Evelyn walked slowly across the bedroom, which was bare except for the four-poster bed she had just vacated, and one red-and-white-print chaise, the upholstery faded and torn. The beautiful Aubusson rug that had once covered the wood floors was gone, as were the Chippendale tables, the sofa and the beautiful mahogany secretary. A Venetian mirror was still hanging on the wall where once there had been a handsome rosewood bureau. She paused before it and stared.
She might have been considered an exceptional beauty as a young woman, but she was hardly beautiful now. Her features hadn't changed, but she had become haggard. She was very fair, with vivid blue eyes, lush dark lashes and nearly black hair. Her eyes were almond-shaped, her cheekbones high, her nose small and slightly tilted. Her mouth was a perfect rosebud. None of that mattered. She looked tired and worn, beyond her years. She appeared to be fortyshe would be twenty-five in March.
But she didn't care if she looked old, exhausted and perhaps even ill. This past year had drained her. Henri had declined with such alarming rapidity. This past month, he hadn't been able to do anything for himself, and he hadn't left his bed, not a single time.
Tears arose. She brushed them aside. He had been so dashing when they had first met. She had not expected his attentions! Mutual acquaintances had directed him to her uncle's home, and the visit of a French count had put the household in an uproar. He had fallen in love with her at first sight. She had, at first, been overwhelmed by his courtship, but she had been an orphan of fifteen. She could not recall anyone treating her with the deference, respect and admiration that he had showered upon her; it had been so easy to fall in love.
She missed him so much. Her husband had been her best friend, her confidant, her safe harbor. She had been left on her uncle's doorstep when she was five years old by her father, her mother having just passed away, and she had never been accepted by her aunt, uncle or her cousins as anything other than the penniless relation they must raise. Her lonely childhood had been made worse by taunts and insults. Her clothes had been hand-me-downs. Her chores had included tasks no gentlewoman would ever perform. Her aunt Enid had constantly reminded her of what a burden she was, and what a sacrifice her aunt was making. Evelyn was a gentlewoman by birth, yet she had spent as much time with the servants, preparing meals and changing beds, as she had spent with her cousins. She was a part of the family, yet she was only allowed to reside on its fringes.
Henri had taken her away from all of that, and he had made her feel like a princess. But in fact, he had made her his countess.
He might have been twenty-four years older than she was, but he had died well before his time. Evelyn tried to remind herself that he was finally at peacein more ways than one. While he had loved her and adored their daughter, he hadn't been happy, not since leaving France.
He had left his friends, his family and his home behind. Both of his sons from a previous marriage had been victims of Le Razor. The revolution had also taken his brother, his nieces and nephews, and his many cousins, too. Adding to his heartache had been the fact that he had never truly accepted their move to Britain; he had left his beloved country behind, as well.
Every passing day in London had made him a bit angrier. But perhaps it was the move to Cornwall that had truly changed him. He hated the Bodmin Moor, hated their home, Roselynd. He had finally told her that he hated Britain. And then he had wept for everything and everyone that he had lost.
Evelyn trembled. Henri had changed so much in the past four years, but she refused to be completely honest with herself. If she was, she might admit that the man she had loved had died a long time ago. Leaving France had destroyed his soul.
Caring for him and their daughter, in such circumstances, had been exhausting enough, and when his illness had become so severe, it had been even worse. She was exhausted now. She wondered if she would ever feel young and strong again, if she would ever feel pretty.
She stared at her reflection more intensely. If the tin mine could not be turned around, the day would come where she would not be able to feed or clothe her daughter. And she must never let that happen..
Evelyn inhaled. A month ago, when it had become clear that the end was near, Henri had told her that he had buried a small fortune in gold bullion in the backyard of their home in Nantes. Evelyn had been incredulous. But he had insisted, right down to the details of where he had buried the fortune. And she had believed him.
If she dared, a fortune awaited her and Aimee in France. And that fortune was her daughter's birthright. It was her future. Evelyn was never going to leave her daughter destitute, the way her own father had left her.
She ignored a new, terrible pang. She must do whatever she had to for Aimee. But how on earth could she retrieve it? How could she possibly return to France, to recover the gold? She would need an escort; she would need a protector, and he would have to be someone she could trust.
To whom could she turn as an escort? Whom could she possibly trust?
Evelyn stared at the mirror, as if the looking glass might provide an answer. She could still hear her guests in conversation in the salon downstairs. Tired and grief stricken, she was not going to find any answers tonight, she decided. Yet she was almost certain that she knew the answer, that it was right there in front of her; she simply could not see it.
And as she turned, a soft knock sounded on her door. Evelyn went to her daughter, kissed her as she slept and pulled up a blanket. Then she crossed the room to the door.
Laurent was waiting for her in the hall, and he was stricken with worry. He was a slim, dark man with dark eyes, which widened upon seeing her. "Mon Dieu! I was beginning to think that you meant to ignore your guests.
Everyone is wondering where you are, Comtesse, and they are preparing to leave!"
"I fell asleep," she said softly.
"And you are exhausted, it is obvious. Still, you must greet everyone before they leave." He shook his head. "Black is too severe, Comtesse, you should wear gray. I think I will burn that dress."
"You are not burning this dress, as it was very costly," Evelyn said, ushering him out and closing the door gently. "when you see Bette, would you send her up to sit with Aimee?" They started down the hall. "I don't want her to awaken, alone, with her father having just been buried."
"Bien stir." Laurent glanced worriedly at her. "You need to eat something, madame, before you fall down."
Evelyn halted on the landing above the stairs, very aware of the crowd awaiting her downstairs. Trepidation coursed through her. "I can't eat. I did not expect such attendance at the funeral, Laurent. I am overcome by how many strangers came to pay their respects."
"Neither did I, Comtesse. But it is a good thing, non? If they did not come today to pay their respects, when would they come?" Evelyn smiled tightly and started down the stairs. Laurent followed. "Madame? There is something you must know."
"What is that?" she asked, over her shoulder, pausing as they reached the marble ground floor.
"Lady Faraday and her daughter, Lady Harold, have been taking an inventory of this house. I actually saw them go into every room, ignoring the closed doors. I then saw them inspecting the draperies in the library, madame, and I was confused so I eavesdropped."
Evelyn could imagine what was coming next, as the draperies were very old and needed to be replaced. "Let me guess. They were determining the extent of my fall into poverty."
"They seem amused to find the draperies moth-eaten." Laurent scowled. "I then heard them speaking, about your very unfortunate circumstances, and they were extremely pleased."
Evelyn felt a new tension arise. She did not want to recall her childhood now. "My aunt was never kindly disposed toward me, Laurent, and she was furious I made such a good match with Henri, when her daughter was far more eligible. She dared to say so, several times, directly to mewhen I had nothing to do with Henri's suit. I am not surprised that they inspected this house. Nor am I surprised that they are happy I am currently impoverished." She shrugged. "The past is passed, and I intend to be a gracious hostess."
But Evelyn bit her lip, as memories of her childhood tried to rush up and engulf her. She suddenly recalled spending the day pressing her cousin Lucille's gowns, her fingers burned from the hot iron, her stomach so empty it was aching. She couldn't recall what mischief she had been accused of committing, but Lucille had habitually fabricated attacks upon her, causing her aunt to find some suitable punishment.