Esther Baumann squeezed her fingers together in a futile effort to control her nerves when Miss Cedrica Grenford approached her in the anteroom to the Duchess of Haverford’s drawing room. The woman’s kind eyes behind wire-rimmed spectacles reassured her, however. She took a deep breath.
“Her Grace is so pleased you came,” Miss Grenford told her.
Esther rose to her feet, hoping she did it as gracefully as she intended. This caused Reba, her ever present companion, to do so as well.
“Would you care for refreshments, miss?” the duchess’s companion asked Reba.
A moment later the door closed softly behind her, and she found herself alone with the Duchess of Haverford.
“Miss Baumann, how lovely of you to come. Your message requesting an interview pleased me.” The duchess gestured to the seat next to her with a graceful hand. Afte pouring tea, offering biscuits, and making sure of Esther’s comfort she went on, “How may I help you?”
“Oh, you already have, Your Grace. I asked to see you to thank you for your invitation to the Hollystone Hall house party and to give you my acceptance in person.” Esther handed a sweetly scented missive to the woman she admired so greatly.
“I’m delighted you will come! May I hope this means your parents have accepted my invitation as well?” the duchess asked turning the little missive over in her hand.
“I fear not, Your Grace. That is the reason I wished to speak to you face to face. My mother is not well.” Esther felt tears well up. When the duchess reached over an put a sympathetic hand on her arm they spilled over, earning her the use of a lace trimmed linen handkerchief.
After a moment to gather her emotions, Esther went on. “She worries about me attending a house party without her, and I’m loathe to worry her. Still, I want badly to come; my father has arranged for my Aunt Dinah to attend come with me.”
“Please assure your mother I will happily stand in her place while you are my guest, Miss Baumann. Will your father accompany you?”
Esther shook her head. “He tells me the demands of business forbid it.” She stiffened at that and watched for the other woman’s reaction. Many looked down on bankers like Nathaniel Baumann, and Esther would not hesitate to defend him if she had to. She didn’t.
“Men like your father are much needed in these difficult times,” the duchess replied.
Esther had a surge of pride, even greater than her relief at the woman’s sensitivity. “Yes! Even the government—” She snapped her mouth shut, aware she had almost revealed things she should not.
The duchess laughed, leaned closer, and whispered. “Yes I understand your father’s young assistant has accompanied Viscount Rochlin to Spain. Such delicate matters must weigh on Mr. Baumann.”
“How do you know that?” Esther gasped. “Adam left only last week!”
“I fear there is little my son Aldridge doesn’t know, at least a it applies to the country. Adam is it? Well, well.” The duchess’s eyes twinkled. “I will look forward to meeting this courageous young man. Shall I invite him as well?”
“He won’t come,” Esther responded morosely. “Adam… that is, Mr. Halevy, has very traditional views and a narrow circle of friends.”
“Oh dear. That must be difficult for one as outgoing as you,” the duchess replied sympathetically.
Her mood had turned gloomy, an unfamiliar situation for Esther. She took a deep breath and reached into her reticule and retrieved a heavy vellum packet, eager to change the subject. “My father asked me to deliver this to you in person as well.”
The duchess glanced over at Esther once or twice while she opened Baumann’s message. At the sight of the enclosed cheque her eyes grew wide. “My goodness, this is extremely generous.”
Esther grinned broadly. “My father is always happy to contribute. He believes very strongly in education.”
“Does he know our charity supports education for women and girls?”
“Certainly. He is…”
“Learning?” the duchess asked with a laugh.
“Conflicted,” Esther replied. “He will also contribute directly to Mr. Montefiore’s project to build a Hebrew school in London.”
“One that won’t admit girls.”
“No. It won’t.” Esther couldn’t keep the irritation out of her voice.
“You sound unhappy about that. Did you wish for that sort of education?”
“I would have liked to study the Torah at the feet of the rabbis, but I know of no girls who do. ”
The duchess sighed. “Perhaps some do and we don’t know about it yet. She raised her chin and went on, suddenly radiating the power of her position. “It is the same for all girls. We will change that. Maybe not overnight, but it will change.”
The fire in her eyes softened when she looked at Esther. “I will send my gratitude to your father and assure him he is welcome at the house party, even if he can only come for the ball.”
Esther smiled back. The duchess and the banker’s daughter’s eyes met in perfect accord.
It might have surprised Esther to know that some girls did have the opportunity she longed for, as Adam is about to find out.
Esther Baumann longs for a loving husband who will help her create a home where they will teach their children to value the traditions of their people, but she wants a man who is also open to new ideas and happy to make friends outside their narrow circle. Is it so unreasonable to ask for toe curling passion as well?
Adam Halevy prospered under the tutelage of his distant cousin, powerful banker Nathaniel Baumann. He’s ready to find a suitable wife, someone who understands a woman’s role, and will make a traditional home. Why is Baumann’s outspoken, independent daughter the one woman who haunts his nights?
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About the Author
Traveler, poet, librarian, technology manager—award winning author Caroline Warfield has been many things (even a nun), but above all she is a romantic. Having retired to the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania, she reckons she is on at least her third act, happily working in an office surrounded by windows while she lets her characters lead her to adventures in England and the far-flung corners of the British Empire. She nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart.