Cedrica stared out of the window, but she saw nothing of the scene before her: the rectory garden, bounded by a low wall, and beyond it the village lane; the gray church through a small gate to her left, and on the right another gate leading to the rectory orchard.
The view was as familiar to her as the shape of her hand—she had known both her whole life. But she sat and looked into the future, and which was unfamiliar and had no shape at all.
Whatever was she to do?
At least here, the villagers knew what to expect from Papa when he wandered off, visiting from cottage to cottage all over the district, bewildered that the parishioners of his youth were not there to greet him; that his beloved Hannah, Cedrica’s mother, was nowhere to be found.
The children and grandchildren of those parishioners would bring Papa back home, where—until today—he recognised his daughter and came back at least a little to himself.
Today, he had stared at her blankly, and become angry when she insisted that she was Cedrica. “This is a cruel joke,” he told her, with great dignity. “I must insist you leave before you upset my wife by taunting her with her childless state.”
In the end, cook had taken him upstairs and put him to bed, and Cedrica had come to the study, filled with memories of the kindest father in the world. Her long-awaited birth had killed her mother, but her Papa made sure she never wanted for affection. How many evenings had she played on this very hearth rug while he wrote his sermon? Here, he told her stories, taught her to read, helped her with her first stumbling letters. Here, as she grew older, they worked side by side, Cedrica proud to help her father with his careful little monographs on English wild flowers, and his letters to other botanists all of Europe.
Where were they now, all those friends with whom he had corresponded? She had written to them and to everyone else she could think of when she and the good people of the village could no longer hide their dear rector’s increasing confusion. Few had replied. Those who did sent only good wishes.
Good wishes would not save Papa from the bishop’s plans to put them out from the only home Cedrica had ever known. Oh, his letter was polite enough. The new rector would require the rectory. Mr Cedric Grenford would be better off in a place where people of failing minds were cared for. The bishop would be happy to write Miss Grenford a recommendation for a position. Perhaps as a companion to someone elderly?
In desperation, Cedrica had written to the last person her father would wish help from—the distant cousin whose great grandfather had banished his son, her own grandfather, for the unpardonable crime of falling in love outside of his class and station.
But the Duke of Haverford, head of the Grenford family, had not replied.
Movement on the lane caught her attention; a magnificent coach, pulled by four black horses, perfectly matched down to the one white fetlock. The equipage was slowing, stopping, one of the two footmen up behind leaping down to open the door with its ornate crest, and put down the carriage steps.
First through the door was a tall man immacutely dressed in a coat that hugged his broad shoulders and pantaloons that hugged… Cedrica schooled her eyes to turn back to the door, as the man himself did, holding out his hand to assist a lady to ascend. A very fashionable lady.
A great lady, as Cedrica would have known by her wise eyes and her kind face, even without her escort, the carriage, and the servants.
The footman opening the gate, and the gentleman gave his arm to the lady and led her towards the rectory door.
Cedrica shook herself. The door. With cook upstairs and the maid on her half day, Cedrica must answer the door, and there. That was the knocker.
Refusing to speculate; refusing to hope; Cedrica hurried into the hall and checked her appearance in the tiny mirror. Reddened eyes. Old fashioned dowdy clothes. She could smooth her hair back under her cap, and she did, but she could do nothing about the rest.
With a sigh, she answered the door.
“Please tell Miss Grenford that the Duchess of Haverford has come to call,” said the man, barely glancing away from the duchess.
“I will… That is, I am…” Cedrica trailed off. She was sure the duchess had never in her life opened her own door. Despite her embarrassment, she could not take her eyes off her illustrious visitor.
The duchess was shorter than her, and elegant in a redingote of a deep wine red that matched the silk flowers inside the brim of her straw bonnet. Yes. Cedrica had been correct. The lady’s eyes were kind, her mouth curving in a gentle smile.
“I think, Aldridge, that this is Miss Grenford. Miss Grenford, allow me to present your cousin, my son, the Marquis of Aldridge.”
Startled, Cedrica turned to look at the man that most of England called the Merry Marquis. He did not look like a dissolute rake. Although, to her knowledge, she had not before met a member of that tribe.
He bowed, a graceful gesture at odds with his dancing hazel eyes.
“Miss Grenford, your humble servant.”
Servant. What must two such aristocrats think of her opening her own door? Cedrica blurted, “It is the maid’s day off, and cook is sitting with Papa.” She could feel her own blush, heating her all the way from the roots of her hair to her- her chest.
“Aldridge, find the kitchen, dear, and put on the kettle,” Her Grace ordered. “Miss Grenford—or may I call you Cedrica? Cedrica, come and sit down, my dear, and you and I shall have a cup of tea and discuss the safest place for your Papa, and the best place for you. You have family, Cedrica, and we will not let you down.”
Cedrica, following her new sponsor blindly into the shabby parlour, could not stop the tears, and in moments she was in the duchess’s arms, crying on her shoulder.
“There, there, Cedrica. You have been very brave, but you are not alone any more,” the duchess assured her.
It was a great deal to take in, but the situation was too strange not to be believed. A duchess was sitting in her parlour, the shoulder of her gown damp with Cedrica’s tears. And in her kitchen, a marquis was making the tea. Cedrica’s sobs stopped on a shaky laugh.
“I beg your pardon, Your Grace.”
“Call me Aunt Eleanor, Cedrica. For we shall become very close, you and I. I have what I think you need, my dear. And you are just the person that I need.”
EDITED TO ADD THE FOLLOWING
Cedrica Grenford is the heroine of A Suitable Husband, a novella in the Bluestocking Belles’ holiday box set, Holly and Hopeful Hearts. The vignette above is a prequel to the novella. Cedrica also appears in the other novellas in the set, as does Her Grace. That rogue Aldridge wanders in and out of the pages, too. Find out more on the Bluestocking Belles book page.