Tea with the Rose of Frampton

And another excerpt post, this time from A Baron for Becky. My duchess has arrived at her nephew’s house to find her son in residence, and alone with a young woman; a rather scandalous young woman! Aldridge may be enamoured, but he will not disgrace his family. Will he?

After dinner, the ladies withdrew to the great parlour, leaving the two men to the port.

“I am travelling in the morning, so will go up to bed,” the duchess announced. “Mrs Darling, perhaps you would give me a few moments of your time?”

“Be nice, aunt,” warned Lady Chirbury, making Rose even more nervous. The duchess gave an enigmatic smile and led the way upstairs.

“Leave us, dear,” she said to the maid who was standing ready by the bed. “I shall ring when I want you.” She took a chair by the fire and waved Rose to the other.

“Do not look so nervous, Mrs Darling. I do not intend to bite you.”

Rose blushed scarlet. Aldridge had promised to bite her, and had explained exactly where. No. She must not think of that. She sat, as commanded.

“Mrs Darling, you were raised gentry, were you not?”

Rose nodded, cautiously. Where was the duchess going with this?

“The manners, the speech, the accomplishments—they can all be taught, of course. But one who has learned them from the cradle…” Her Grace waved a hand as if to flick away counterfeits.

“The usual story, I imagine? Seduction or rape? And no father to defend your honour?”

“My father…” Rose swallowed hard to remove the lump that closed her throat at the memories. “My father was a librarian. He took the part of his employer.”

“Ah.” Her Grace nodded. “And the employer was the cause of your downfall. Or his son, perhaps?”

“His son,” Rose confirmed. His sons, in fact, but she would not say that.

“And Sarah was the…?”

“No, Your Grace. Sarah… came later.”

“Mr. Darling?”

“There was no Mr. Darling,” Rose admitted.

The maid must have added a fresh log to the fire just before they arrived. The top was still uncharred, but flames licked up from the bed of hot embers. A twig that jutted from one side suddenly flared, turned black, and shrivelled. The bottom of the log began to glow red.

The duchess spoke again, startling Rose out of her flame-induced trance.

“What do you want for your daughter, Mrs Darling?”

“A better life,” Rose said immediately, suddenly fierce. “A chance to be respectable. A life that does not depend on the whims of a man.”

“The first two may be achievable,” the duchess said, dryly. “The third is highly unlikely for any woman of any station. You expect my son to help you to these goals, I take it.”

Rose was suddenly tired of polite circling. “I was saving so that I could leave this life, start again in another place under another name. But my last protector cheated me and stole from me.

“I do what I must, Your Grace. Should I have killed myself when I was disgraced? I had no skills anyone wanted to buy. I could play the piano, a little; sew, but others were faster and better; paint, but indifferently; parse a Latin sentence, but of what use was that in my circumstances? Should I have starved in the gutter where they threw me?

“Well, I was not given that choice. Those who took me from the gutter knew precisely what I had that others would pay for. As soon as I could, I began selling it for myself, and I. Will. Not. Be. Ashamed.”

Her vehemence did not ruffle the duchess’s calm. “We all do what we must, my dear. I am not judging you. Men have the power in this world, and women of the gentry are raised to depend on them for our survival. But you must know that Aldridge cannot offer marriage to a woman with your history.”

The mere thought startled a laugh out of Rose. Marriage had never crossed Aldridge’s mind. Of that she was certain. “His Lordship has offered me a two-year contract as his mistress,” she said, “with very favourable terms. If I accept, and if I save carefully, I will never need to take a protector again.”

“Two years!” The duchess arched a delicate eyebrow. “Aldridge seldom keeps a mistress beyond six months. He must be utterly besotted.”

“He has no thought of marriage,” Rose found herself reassuring the duchess. “And neither do I. I like him, but do not love him, and I think only love could make marriage tolerable.”

It was only partly true. She could easily fall in love with Aldridge… was, perhaps, beginning to do so already. That way, she knew, led to heartache, for the duchess was right. Aldridge would never offer her marriage, or even permanence.

The duchess nodded, decisively. “You are wise. I think you will be good for him, Mrs Darling—which is a ridiculous name. May I call you ‘Rose’?” Her Grace’s smile was a wonderful thing, another feature her son had inherited.

“Would you…” Rose had never imagined having such a conversation, but there was something about this woman. Nothing shocked her, and she listened. “Would you call me Becky? It is my real name.”

“Becky, then. Becky, as long as you remember that you will never be accepted as a fit mate for the future Duke of Haverford—which is a great shame, for you seem to be a fine young woman, but we must live in the world as it is—you and I shall be friends, and I shall support you and little Sarah to find the new life you seek when Aldridge is finished with you. He needs someone like you. He is not happy, poor boy.”

That squashed the nascent hope that the duchess’s sponsorship might mean she could avoid accepting Aldridge’s protection. Still, it was a good offer. Becky accepted the duchess’s outstretched hands. “Thank you, Your Grace. I will do my best to make him happy.”

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