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It was time to speak of unpleasant things. Lord Harry Hayward toyed with his brandy glass and glanced at his aunt-by-marriage. Her hopeful expression made it more difficult for him to start.
Lady Hayward shifted impatiently in her dainty, padded chair. Then she took a deep breath, stretching the low neckline of her dress tightly across full mounds of creamy flesh. "Did you find any trace of the Hayward jewels?"
He shook his head. "The safe was just as you said, full of nothing but papers, most of them bills. I searched every nook and cranny of that old house and have been to both of the banks my uncle did business with. The jewels are well and truly gone."
She sighed. "Osmond must have sold them, although I don't know when or where. He told me he was keeping them locked away for safety's sake. I wish I'd noticed his deteriorating mental state sooner. I might have been able to do something. Of course, he had strong feelings about women being sheltered from all business matters. I had no idea his affairs were in such a state until he was no longer able to contend with the bill collectors, and they started coming to me. What will we do now?"
We again. Harry had to force his jaws apart to keep from grinding his teeth. With his mother, two aunts and assorted cousins all looking to him to be the head of the Hayward family, he was beginning to feel as if he were buried in needy relatives. Most of the family blamed the woman in front of him for the sorry state of affairs now existing within the Haywards. They said she'd disrupted the bonds of familial love between Baron Osmond Hayward and his blood relations and had led her elderly husband into spending themall into near-bankruptcy.
Harry had been in school when the twenty-year-old Veronica married the sixty-year-old baron. After that he'd been too involved with his career in the army to pay much attention to the gossip swirling about the couple. But he did remember the family's vehement disapproval of the marriage had caused the baron to break ties with them. Veronica, on the other hand, had stayed with the querulous old man for seventeen years, and now found herself left with a small fund that didn't earn enough to support a lady in proper style.
He couldn't help feeling sorry for her plight. He just didn't want to be responsible for her, too. If his cousin, Rodney, hadn't gotten so drunk he couldn't stay on his horse, none of this would be Harry's problem.
He took another sip of his brandy. "The truth of the matter is I don't know how I'm going to stay afloat in this sea of bills I've inherited. The money I received for selling my commission won't come close to settling my uncle's debts. Conditions on the estate in Dorset are so poor I don't know when I can hope to turn a profit there. I promised you could stay in this house, but it's the only property in the estate that isn't entailed. I don't see how I can avoid selling it, or at the very least, letting it out. You are, of course, welcome to live on the estate in Dorset."
Her pained expression didn't surprise him. She'd made her distaste for the old Elizabethan house in Dorset well known. She'd lived mostly in this London house, even when his uncle had chosen to remain in the country. That's why Harry could well believe her claim to have been unaware of her husband's dwindling mental capacities in the last years of his life.
"If you put this place on the market with bill collectors in hot pursuit, everyone will know you're in a hurry to sell and offer much less than it's worth," she said.
He shrugged. "I know, but it's unavoidable."
She braced her elbows on the arms of her chair and leaned back. "I might be able to help you. At least raise enough money so that we can maintain the appearance of solvency for the time being."
"Oh?" Surely the dowager baroness isn't considering returning to the stage?
She tapped two slender fingers against her cheek as if she were having trouble selecting her words. "A long time ago, the Duke of Windingham and I were friends. He got into a bit of a scrape, and I offered to help him out. A baby girl needed to be provided for, but he didn't want his name connected with her. Down through the years he has advanced me the money, and I have paid her caregivers. The girl is nearing eighteen, and he wants to see her properly married.
"With your help, he'll surely place me in charge of such matters as obtaining a new wardrobe and a trousseau for her. There will be ample opportunity to add extras to the bills I send him."
Her plan was so preposterous Harry could only stare at her with his mouth slightly agape. In the first place she was suggesting they steal from one of the most powerful noblemen in the realm. Secondly, Harry had spent ten years as an officer and, he hoped, a gentleman in her Majesty's army. Damned if he'd let this title he'd inherited drive him into dishonesty.
She apparently saw his resistance for she waved a hand dismissively. "Don't worry about the duke causing trouble. All he cares about is keeping the world from knowing he has any connection with this girl. He owes me for hiding his dirty little secret all these years, and anyway, he's as rich as Croesus."
Harry suspected there was a lot more to this story than a friend helping out a friend, but Veronica had evidently been obtaining money from the duke for some time, so why did she need him? "What part would I play in this scheme?"
She took her hand away from her face and leaned closer as if she were about to share a great secret. "Aside from the nuisance of my being in mourning, my position in ton isn't as high as the duke's."
Harry eyed her as she spoke--her crimson dress looked nothing like widow's weeds. He also knew that a number of doors in the higher reaches of society had always been closed to her.
She continued. "These facts might inspire the duke to think I won't be able to arrange a suitable marriage for ... the orphan. However, if he thinks I might snare a young baron for her, that would clearly be an excellent match, and he'll be eager to support my efforts."
Harry immediately shook his head. "I'll not marry a stranger for the price of a couple of dresses."
"Of course, not. You need to marry a woman with a larger income than the duke will undoubtedly settle on his little waif. But if you and I are seen with her in a few public places, say museums and such, talk will get back to him. God knows everybody in this town loves to gossip about me, and they're always curious about new lords. The duke will assume you're interested in the girl, and since I'm your uncle's widow, he'll see I'm best qualified to promote the match. Getting money out of him after that should be easy."
"And what happens when he learns there's to be no marriage?"
"I'll simply say you two didn't suit and that I'll look elsewhere. I'll see the girl decently matched. We won't get vast amounts of money. The duke's amazingly tight-fisted for such a wealthy man, but we'll get enough to calm the creditors and give you time to raise more in a less helter-skelter manner. Did you notice the artwork in the house in Dorset? I know nothing about art, but your uncle used to brag about how old some of those pictures were. Surely they're worth a good deal?"
Harry didn't know what to say to this scheme, so he just stared at her.
After a tense moment of silence, she spoke again. "I talked your uncle into buying this house. By rights, it should have been left to me. Now it's the Hayward estate's most valuable asset." Her voice became tremulous. "I had hoped to, at least, live out my year of mourning here, before having to make my own way in the world. Six more months, and I'm offering to help you pay household expenses. Is that too much to ask?"
Guilt weighed on Harry's shoulders. "What do you want me to do?"
The twinkle came back into her eyes. "First we must fetch the orphan. She's in the village of Peavey. It's not far from London, but unfortunately it's not on the rail lines and making travel arrangements for such a trip will be difficult for a woman."
A small burst of annoyance filled his chest at the thought of being responsible for yet another woman. "Surely you don't want me to travel alone with her."
"Of course not. I'll send Mrs. Walters with you. We must guard the girl's reputation carefully. She's living with a clergyman and his wife. I'll write him a letter saying you are my appointed agent."
Harry questioned his own sanity as he let Veronica talk on about the arrangements that must be made. He'd just agreed to participate in a scheme to get money under false pretenses by misleading a young woman he'd never set eyes on. Of course, he wouldn't actually court her. He could be friendly, but do nothing to raise her hopes. And he'd be helping her come to London where she could make a better marriage than she could ever hope for in some backwater village.
The vicar had been in a sour mood all day. As soon as he dismissed the students, Mr. Milhouse left the classroom, and Annie began cleaning the slates and placing the books in their proper places. She dawdled over her work, wanting to avoid him for as long as possible. Of course, taking too long to tidy the classroom would be another reason for him to berate her, so she finally accepted the inevitable and returned to the part of the house that served as the vicarage.
The cook delivered the tea tray just as Annie arrived in the parlor. Mrs. Milhouse sat near a window to better see her mending, so Mr. Milhouse gestured toward the tea table and said, "Would you be so kind as to serve today, Annie?"
Knowing from his peevish tone it wasn't a real question, she nodded and took her place beside the tray. She warned herself not to make any mistakes, but that only made her more nervous. Her hand must have trembled a bit as she attempted to pour the first cup, or the dratted cook had overfilled the pot, for several drops of steaming tea plopped onto the linen tea tray cover. Mrs. Milhouse gasped.
The vicar made a noise that sounded like a growl. "You careless, careless girl. Have you no concern for the work Mrs. Milhouse must do to present us with the niceties of life?"
"I'm sorry," she murmured and continued to pour the tea.
"Put the pot down," the vicar ordered, "before you spill the whole of it."
She set the pot down, folded her hands in her lap, and stared at them.
"Into my study," he commanded.
Another birching. She knew she'd suffer less if she meekly accepted her punishment, but she was one week from her eighteenth birthday and resented being treated like a child. So she continued to sit.
"Well?" he demanded and pointed an imperial finger toward his study.
Being an orphan with nothing between her and the workhouse but the kindness of Mr. and Mrs. Milhouse, she sighed in resignation and headed for the study.
He followed at a leisurely pace, letting her stew over what was to come. After closing the door behind himself, he said, "I do not enjoy having to do this, Annie, but it's for your own good. You must learn to exercise care in all things. It has long been my hope to train you to become a teacher, but teachers are entrusted with the precious commodity of young minds. They must be in control of themselves at all times."
He reached into the corner near the doorway and picked up the bundle of birch switches that had been carefully tied together. The law said a man couldn't beat a woman with a stick larger than the circumference of his thumb, but apparently did not concern itself with the bundling together of many sticks. Annie knew from experience that such bundles delivered numerous painful stings at one time.
The vicar swished the bundle through the air several times. Then he used it to point toward his desk.
Annie bent over the desk and braced her hands against it. He lifted her skirt and petticoat, flipping them up and over her backside and leaving nothing but her thin cotton drawers between her and the switches. He stood beside her and let her tension build. How hard will the blows be? How many will there be?
When she'd first come to live with them, Mrs. Milhouse had delivered her discipline, but when Annie had grown taller than the short, stout woman, Mr. Milhouse had decided his wife was no longer up to the task and had taken it upon himself. At first Annie had been frightened and embarrassed to have a man beat her, and she'd tried to make as little fuss as possible during the ordeals. Eventually she realized the whippings would go on and grow harsher until she cried and moaned and gave every sign of being in great pain. After she learned what he wanted, the beatings became almost ritualistic. Recently something different had begun to happen during the beatings. Something else frightening.
She curved her back, holding her backside as high as possible while in this position.
Thwack! The first blow was laid sharply across both cheeks. She twitched and squealed.
Thwack! She bucked and squealed louder.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! The bursts of stinging pain made it easy for her to forget all modesty and jerk and squeal like a frightened piglet. When she paused to take a breath, she heard his harsh breathing. He moved to the other side of her body and "accidentally" brushed his thigh against her hip. At least, she hoped it was his thigh.
Dear God, please take me away from here. Please. Please.
"But, Madam, I have business with Mr. Milhouse." Harry put his shoulder against the door and forced it open so he could get past the short, stout woman and into the hallway of the vicarage. The lace on her cap and the lack of an apron told him she wasn't a servant, but her excited gibberish as she'd sought to deny him entrance made him wonder if she might be addle-pated. Then he heard noises from behind a nearby closed door. He'd suffered too many canings during his schooldays to mistake that sound. But the high-pitched squeals following each strike were those of a female.
Surely, a young woman who was nearly eighteen wasn't being subjected to such punishment? With no thought to the propriety of his actions, Harry stepped over to the door and flung it open. White billows of upturned petticoats framed a barely covered, plump little arse supported on two lean but shapely legs spread for best support.
He stared open-mouthed at the scene. How could the vicar possibly see this and not have his manly urges stirred? Harry couldn't.
Then the rotund man holding the bundle of switches turned and glared at him. "Go away!"
His red face and the bulge in the front of his trousers told Harry all he needed to know about Mr. Milhouse. "I beg your pardon, sir, but is that Miss Annie Smith you have stretched over your desk?"
The vicar at least had the decency to place his body in front of his hapless victim before asking, "Who are you?"
In the background, the little woman in the hallway was chirping, "I told him not to come in! I told him!"
Reminding himself that he had no idea what the young woman might have done to inspire this treatment, Harry fought down an urge to grab that bundle of switches and give the vicar a dose of his own medicine. Instead he glared at the man. "I'm Lord Harry Hayward and I've come to fetch Miss Smith."
"Fetch her?" The vicar's chest puffed up like a rooster whose territory was being threatened.
"Her benefactress has decided it's time for Miss Smith to leave the schoolroom." Harry pulled an envelope from this pocket and extended it to the man. "I have a letter stating her wishes. I'm sure you'll recognize her handwriting from the quarterly bank drafts she has sent."
The young woman's head popped from behind Mr. Milhouse and she wiped a tear from her cheek. "Someone's been sending bank drafts for me?"
Her eyes were so large they made her face look childlike, and the tears swimming in them made the light brown color shine like gold. It was impossible to imagine this angel would ever deserve a beating. "Miss Smith, I presume?"
She nodded and stepped from behind the vicar. Harry quickly saw there was nothing childish about the rest of her. Even with her dress buttoned up under her chin and her body tightly corseted, her feminine curves weren't hidden. Perhaps she wasn't as angelic as she'd first appeared to be.
Mr. Milhouse called to the woman in the hall, "Take Annie into the parlor. I'll handle this."
The little woman extended a plump hand, but Miss Smith ignored the gesture and stared at Harry with great intensity. "Who is my benefactress?"
"My aunt-by-marriage, Lady Veronica Hayward."
"How long has she been paying for my keep?"
"I know little about my aunt's charitable activities. You'll have to ask her when you see her."
Miss Smith glared at Mr. Milhouse. "Why have I never heard of this before?"
Milhouse ignored her question and shook his head at Harry. "This is most irregular. I can't send this innocent young woman off with a man I know nothing of."
The vicar's words caused Miss Smith to frown at Harry. He smiled at her reassuringly. "I've brought my aunt's housekeeper with me, a most respectable woman. She's waiting to help you pack. I'd like to get started as soon as possible."
She mulled over his words for a moment, and then asked, "Where are we going?"
"You don't have to go with him, Annie," Mr. Milhouse said in an almost pleading tone.
Harry once again extended Veronica's letter. "If you'll read this, sir, you'll see there's to be no more money for Miss Smith's upkeep."
Mr. Milhouse looked back and forth between the letter and the girl. Finally he said, "It doesn't matter. You can stay here and teach in our school. I've been training you for that. You'll have a decent, god-fearing life. Who knows what these-these aristocrats have in mind for you."
Miss Smith stared at Harry, chewing on her lower lip. Then she turned back to the vicar, her frown increasing and her mouth twisting into an angry knot. "You said you were taking care of me out of the goodness of your heart, but you were being paid to do it. You, sir, are a liar." She tossed out the last word as if it were the greatest insult possible.
The vicar sputtered, "Lady Hayward requested anonymity. I-I--"
But Miss Smith would hear no more. With her head up and her back straight, she stormed out of the room. Good show.
Her prayers had been answered and so quickly. Annie brushed past Mrs. Milhouse, who was wringing her hands in distress. No doubt she feared her husband would vent all his spleen on her if Annie left. Oh, well, she could always take in another orphan.
Just then a prim, older woman, dressed all in gray and carrying a portmanteau, appeared in the front doorway. "May I come in?" she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she stepped inside and stared at Annie for a moment as though having trouble seeing her in the dimmer light of the hallway. Finally she said, "Are you Miss Smith?"
"I'm Mrs. Walters, Lady Hayward's housekeeper." The woman had a kind, trustworthy air about her.
A strapping young man wearing faded livery stepped through the doorway with a trunk balanced on his back. "And this is Dennis. We've brought luggage to pack your clothing in, Miss. Where's your room?"
Annie couldn't believe her good fortune. This was her chance to get away from the constant pressure of living with a bully and to go to London, the one place where she might find out who she really was. Without hesitation, she waved toward the staircase.
Mrs. Walters smiled. "Lead the way."
Annie started up the stairs, but the sound of footsteps following after her, reminded her she was leading total strangers up to her bedroom and was about to leave her home of the last twelve years with them. The vicar and Mrs. Milhouse might be distant and sometimes harsh people, but they'd provided her with all the necessities of life. Who knew what these strangers would do?
But God wouldn't send bad people to take her away. If Lady Hayward had been paying her keep all these years, she must be a kind and charitable woman. She might want Annie to be her companion or even to work in her house as a servant. Annie wouldn't mind that--she'd had plenty of training for such work at the vicarage. And suppose Lady Hayward knew something of Annie's past? She couldn't miss the possibility of finding out anything about her parents. Even if they were dead, there might be other relatives. Surely there's somebody in this world who can love me?
She reached her little attic room and stepped aside to admit the others. The young man sat the trunk down. "Just give a whistle when you're ready, Mrs. Walters."
"Thank you, Dennis."
After he left the room, Mrs. Walters turned to Annie. "Where are your clothes?"
Annie pointed to the garments hanging on wooden pegs along one wall, and then threw open the chest that held her personal items. As she reached in to pick up a chemise, Mrs. Walters said, "Perhaps you'd like to change your clothing, while I do the packing."
Of course. Annie couldn't go to London wearing a ratty old everyday dress. She found just enough tepid water left in the pitcher on the washstand to allow her a scanty wash up. She didn't dare go for more and give Mr. Milhouse another chance to try and frighten her out of leaving.
By the time she buttoned up the jacket to her Sunday dress, Mrs. Walters, with great efficiency, had finished packing the clothes. There wasn't a lot to pack. The trunk wasn't completely full and the other bag had been left open to receive the last of Annie's personal articles after she finished dressing.
When Annie picked up her comb, Mrs. Walters took it from her and gestured for her to sit on the side of the bed. In truth, Annie would have preferred to remain standing for her bottom still smarted from the beating, but no one had offered to fix her hair since she'd learned to braid it herself, so she meekly submitted to the woman's attentions.
While Mrs. Walters combed, Annie asked, "Have you worked for Lady Hayward long?"
"About ten years."
Annie had left London when she was six years old, so there was no need to ask this woman if she knew anything about Annie's background. "Are there other orphans at Lady Hayward's house?"
"No, you'll be the only one. Where are your hairpins?"
Annie pointed at the little tin box and then became too interested in what Mrs. Walters was doing to her hair to ask more questions. After using little combs to make waves over each temple, she coiled the rest of Annie's hair neatly at the nape of her neck. Then she carefully placed the bonnet on Annie's head and tied the ribbons into a bow under her chin. Annie felt like a grand lady and wondered if she'd receive more of this type of coddling in her new life.
When they were ready to go downstairs, Mrs. Walters summoned Dennis. After he'd again hoisted the trunk over his shoulder, Annie led the way down the stairs. Mr. and Mrs. Milhouse waited in the downstairs hallway. She was all teary-eyed and he was puffed up like an angry bullfrog. Out of respect for Mrs. Milhouse's tears, Annie gave her a quick hug, but stayed out the vicar's reach.
"This is ill-advised, Annie," he snarled.
Her long-time habit of always obeying this man made her hesitate for just a moment. But the call of a new, better life spurred her on. Murmuring, "Goodbye, sir," she shot out the door.
Harry had been so agitated by the scene he'd interrupted when he barged into the vicar's office that he'd decided to wait for the women outside. Standing in the shade of their coach, he told himself corporal punishment was standard treatment in most schools in England. Still, he feared something had been going on in that room other than routine punishment.
Miss Smith might have done something to deserve such treatment. With her pretty, childlike face and womanly body, she would readily attract male attention. Could she be the village flirt and the vicar only seeking to mend her wayward ways? His obvious disappointment at the prospect of her leaving his house had suggested something else. Has he molested the girl? God! If she really has close ties to the Duke of Windingham, this could have serious repercussions.
But it wasn't Harry's problem. He only had to deliver her to London, and then take her out in public a time or two. And what could he do, anyway? It would be improper for him to ask the young woman outright if something untoward had gone on between her and the vicar. Perhaps he'd tell Mrs. Walters what he'd seen in the vicar's office and let her make inquiries. She seemed like a sensible woman. Surely, she'd know how to handle it.
Dennis trudged out of the house carrying the trunk and heading for the back of the coach. Knowing the man would have trouble strapping it on the rear platform by himself, Harry went to help. By the time the trunk was secured, the two women were waiting beside the coach.
Dressed in a brown skirt, and loose mantle, Miss Smith might have been any village woman until she turned so he could see her face. Her cheeks were flushed, her golden eyes wide with excitement and her plump lips drawn into a bow of consternation. Was she excited--or frightened?
Harry automatically moved to her, wanting to reassure and protect. As he lightly touched her arm, he felt her recoil. He quickly stepped away and opened the coach door to make it clear his only intention was to help her inside. She smiled a timid thank you. Once she was settled, he took the portmanteau from Mrs. Walters and handed her inside the coach.
Dennis was busy untying the horses, so Harry stored the valise in the space behind the driver's seat. As soon as he was seated across from the two women, the whip snapped and coach started moving. Miss Smith leaned forward so she could look out the window at the vicarage. Her face was so serious he thought she might cry, but then she sighed and sank back against the cushions.
Seeking to distract her from gloomy thoughts, he asked, "Have you ever been to London, Miss Smith?"
"I used to live there when I was a child."
"So you're familiar with the city?"
"Not really. I was barely six years old when I came to live in Peavey. Where does your aunt live?"
"Near Belgrave Square."
"Have you ever heard of a street named Cheapgate?"
That street was in the old city. "Yes, I've heard of it."
"I'd like to go there."
Mrs. Walters joined the conversation. "Nothing of interest there, Miss, it's mostly shops and such."
"I think I used to live there."
Mrs. Walters looked a bit alarmed by her statement. The woman was so close with Veronica that Harry suspected she knew more about Miss Smith's background than he did.
The older woman asked a question in a soft voice. "What else do you remember about London?"
Miss Smith shrugged. "Just a lot of buildings and people."
Mrs. Walters smiled. "Well, you'll find many interesting things to see in the city, like parks and museums and theaters."
Miss Smith's topaz eyes opened widely. "I've never been to a theater. Traveling players sometimes came through Peavey, but Mr. Milhouse doesn't approve of such."
Harry made a mental note to take her to a theatre.
As it was late in the afternoon, they didn't travel long before the coach reached the destination Harry had given Dennis. Seeing Miss Smith stare out the window at the courtyard of a large inn with a puzzled frown, he sought to reassure her. "This seems to be the best inn in the area, so we'll stop here for the night."
She gave him another of those wide-eyed looks, almost as if she were frightened. Perhaps she'd never stayed in an inn before.
Servants and guests rushed about the front room of the inn. Annie tried to stay out of the way by standing in a corner while Lord Hayward talked to the innkeeper. Even without his top hat, Lord Hayward was much taller than the other man. His frock coat was a rich chocolate brown while his trousers and matching weskit were the color of a fawn's belly. But clothes and height weren't his only distinctions. He moved with a decisive air. He listened intently, or smiled brightly. Everything about him made him seem bolder than the people around him.
Then she reminded herself that he was a gentleman from London, and the people around him were just simple villagers. Would there be many men in London like Lord Hayward? If there were, how would a country lass keep her head from being turned?
Mrs. Walters, who had stayed at the coach to show Dennis which pieces of luggage to remove, entered the inn. Lord Hayward finished his negotiations with the innkeeper and took her aside for a private conversation. As they talked, they both glanced at Annie. She turned away, embarrassed to be caught staring.
Were they talking about her? Annie recalled the stories Mrs. Milhouse had told her about innocent young women being disgraced by noblemen. Annie hadn't considered the possibility of such a thing because she was traveling with a proper chaperone. She glanced their way again. Mrs. Walters still looked at her, her expression grim. Annie realized the woman was only a servant. Could she protect Annie from a lord? Would she even want to?
Then Lord Hayward handed Mrs. Walters a key and the woman walked over to Annie. "We can go up to our room now."
Annie sighed in relief.
Mrs. Walter's brow furrowed. "Do you object to sharing a room with me?"
"Oh, no, ma'am. Let me help with one of the valises." Annie smiled broadly at her own stupidity. How could she have imagined an important gentleman like Lord Hayward would have any interest in a nobody like her? That's what she got for listening to Mrs. Milhouse's silly stories. What did a village vicar's wife know about noblemen, anyway?
The room they were to share proved to be small, but neat and clean. Mrs. Walters set to work, unpacking their nightclothes and setting Annie's comb and brush out on the top of a chest of drawers. "We'll be going down to supper soon, dearie. You might want to remove your bonnet and straighten your hair a bit."
Annie followed the suggestion, staring into a smoky mirror that hung over the chest. Then she realized Mrs. Walters was hovering near her elbow and turned to look at her.
"Are you feeling all right?" the woman asked.
"Do you need my help with anything?"
Mrs. Walters pursed her lips for a moment before saying, "Lord Hayward told me about the beating you received. Should we look to see if you're injured?"
Now Annie knew what they had been talking about. She shook her head vehemently. "No, ma'am, I'm fine. It was no worse than any other beating I've received."
Mrs. Walters looked askance. "Did he beat you often?"
Annie didn't want the woman to think she frequently misbehaved. "No, ma'am. But the vicar has high standards, and he wanted me to be a good girl."
"Why did he beat you this time?"
Annie could no longer look the woman in the eye. "I spilled some tea. Just a few drops from the pot."
"Did he do anything besides hit you?"
Should she tell about him brushing up against her? Maybe it was nothing. Mr. Milhouse was a heavyset man and clumsy. Mrs. Milhouse's stories probably had Annie starting at shadows. "He lectured a lot, ma'am."
Mrs. Walters patted her arm. "All right, Annie, but if you need help or want to talk about some problem, you can come to me."
Why would a servant, especially one as high as a housekeeper, care about Annie's problems? "Thank you, ma'am."
After they freshened up, Annie followed Mrs. Walters to a private dining room where Lord Hayward waited. Three chairs stood around a table and one of them had an extra cushion. Annie tried not to blush as Lord Hayward held that chair for her.
He'd already ordered the meal. After a first course of thin soup, the waiter brought a large beef pie. Annie was greatly impressed for they had beef at the vicarage only on occasional Sundays. Mrs. Walters served the plates and Annie ate with relish since she'd missed her tea earlier.
She caught sight of Lord Hayward and Mrs. Walters exchanging sly smiles and feared they were amused by her greedy table manners, so she straightened her back and began to chew more slowly. When Lord Hayward asked if she'd like currant pudding for desert, she considered declining in order to seem more ladylike, but she dearly loved currant pudding so she smiled and said, "Yes, thank you."
After the pudding, Annie and Mrs. Walters had a pot of tea and Lord Hayward had a glass of port. Mr. Milhouse had often said alcoholic spirits led to riotous misbehavior so Annie watched Lord Hayward over the top of her teacup for the beginning signs of such, but he maintained a relaxed posture and mood. In fact, he seemed so easy-going she dared to seek more information about her future.
"What will I do when we reach my benefactress?"
He lowered his eyebrows, making his blue eyes seem darker. "Do?"
"I'm sure I'll have duties."
He swirled the red wine in his glass, making her aware of his long, slender fingers. His fingernails were very clean. "I suppose you can call learning the social arts a duty."
"What kind of arts?"
"The things one is expected to do in society, such as dancing and conducting dinner conversations and understanding precedent."
"Precedent? That's who comes before who in the nobility, isn't it?"
"Yes. I'm still learning that myself, so perhaps we can study together."
"But you're a lord!"
"It's a recent thing. Until a few months ago, I was an officer in her Majesty's army, second in line to inherit a baronetcy from my uncle. But the unexpected happened and here I am."
"Your uncle was my benefactress' husband?"
"Was his death unexpected?"
"Not really. He'd been in poor health for some time. But my cousin, who was first in line, was in excellent health until he fell from a horse during a foxhunt."
What a wonderful woman Annie's benefactress must be, to have to care for an ailing husband and yet still concern herself with orphans. Perhaps her husband's health was the reason they'd never met.
Finally Annie plucked up the courage to ask the question foremost in her mind. "Do you think your aunt knows of my parents? Mr. Milhouse said I was a foundling, but I keep hoping I can at least learn their names."
Lord Hayward smiled at her sympathetically. "I don't know, but you can ask Lady Hayward tomorrow."
Annie nodded and tried to smile. So much had happened to her so quickly. She was on her way to London to see her benefactress: a stranger. Did Lady Hayward know anything about Annie's past? Would she continue to help Annie in the future? What if she didn't like her?
Annie vowed to be on her very best behavior in Lady Hayward's presence.