The Duchess of Haverford rose and crossed the room to greet her visitor with a kiss to the cheek.
“Becky, my dear, thank you for making the time to see me.”
Lady Overton returned the embrace, real affection in her eyes as she smiled at the older woman. “It is kind of you to invite me, Your Grace.”
“Call me Aunt Eleanor, please, as you did when I stayed with you after little Isabelle’s birth. Is she well, my dear? Have you brought her and her sisters to London?”
Becky confirmed that she had, while taking the seat that the duchess indicated. For several minutes, they discussed the children, as Her Grace busied herself at the tea service that stood ready on its own ornate cart beside her preferred seat. Once she had presented Becky with a cup and a plate with a selection of finely crafted pastries, she poured her own tea and chose a single pastry.
“And Lord Overton,” she asked. “Is he fully recovered?”
Becky was not surprised the duchess knew of Overton’s accident. She sometimes thought that Her Grace knew everything, and certainly she had more reason than most to interest herself in anything that affected Becky’s youngest daughter. “He has headaches from time to time, Aunt Eleanor, but fewer than before. The doctor says he will have no long-term ill effects.”
Her Grace beamed, putting her cup into its saucer and back on the table before her. “Excellent. I was concerned when Aldridge mentioned Overton’s concerns about guardianship of the little girls, but he is just taking sensible precautions.”
Becky set down her own cup, her face carefully blank. “The marquis mentioned it to you, Ma’am?”
“Yes. And he has an idea that might just answer your husband’s need. But I have told him that I must speak with you before I give it my support. Will you hear me out, Becky?”
Becky nodded, cautiously. Another outrageous scheme by Aldridge? Whatever might it be, when he knew perfectly well that neither she nor Hugh would consider… But no, Her Grace would not be involved in anything of that sort.
“If we are to be fair, my dear Becky, we must agree that his last plot on your behalf was highly successful,” the duchess pointed out, which was perfectly true.
“Beyond expectations,” she agreed.
She was a fallen woman; could they help her land on her feet?
Becky is the envy of the courtesans of the demi-monde — the indulged mistress of the wealthy and charismatic Marquis of Aldridge. But she dreams of a normal life; one in which her daughter can have a future that does not depend on beauty, sex, and the whims of a man. Finding herself with child, she hesitates to tell Aldridge. Will he cast her off, send her away, or keep her and condemn another child to this uncertain shadow world?
The devil-may-care face Hugh shows to the world hides a desperate sorrow; a sorrow he tries to drown with drink and riotous living. His years at war haunt him, but even more, he doesn’t want to think about the illness that robbed him of the ability to father a son. When he dies, his barony will die with him. His title will fall into abeyance, and his estate will be scooped up by the Crown.
When Aldridge surprises them with a daring proposition, they do not expect love to be part of the bargain.
The Duchess of Haverford has taken a hand in Rebecca Overton’s life a number of times, the most significant covered in A Baron for Becky. The following extract is about one of them:
While Aldridge visited his Mama to explain what they wanted, Hugh went cap, and purse, in hand to Doctor’s Commons to arrange a special licence.
It took longer than he’d hoped, and a lucky encounter with a friend from university, to be admitted to the Archbishop’s presence, but two days later, he had his licence. It was in his pocket, and Becky at his side, when they waited on Her Grace, summoned by a scented note delivered by the hand of a liveried footman.
Hugh had been in the heir’s wing many times, and at Haverford, the family seat, when he was a boy. He had never entered Haverford House by the main door. Designed to impress, the approach sat back from the road, admittance through a gatekeeper. They were paraded through the paved courtyard by another liveried servant to the stairs between pillars that stretched three stories to the pediment above.
Inside, the ducal glory continued; a marbled entrance chamber the height of the house that would make a ballroom in any lesser mansion, with majestic flights of stairs rising on either side and curving to meet, only to split again in a symphony of wood and stone. Grenford ancestors were everywhere, twice as large as life, painted on canvas and moulded from stone, cold eyes examining petitioners and finding them all unworthy.
Aldridge met them in the entrance chamber, and led them up the first flight of stairs and down a sumptuously carpeted hall that was elegantly papered above richly carved panels. Four men could have walked arm-in-arm down the middle, never touching the furniture and art lining both walls, between highly-polished doors.
Busts on marble pedestals alternated with delicate gilded tables and seats upholstered in the Haverford green, scarlet and gold, many embroidered with the unicorn and phoenix from the Haverford coat of arms. The art in gilded frames that hung both walls showed more Grenford ancestors, interspersed with favourite animals, scenes from the Bible, and retellings of Greek legends. The ornately painted ceiling boasted flowers, leaves, and decorative swirls, the many colours highlighted in gilding.
Here and there, an open door gave them a view into one large chamber after another, each room richer than the last. At intervals, curtained arches led to more halls, more stairs.
Hugh was openly gawping, and Becky drew closer to him, as if for protection.
“A bit over the top, don’t you think?” he whispered to her, and was rewarded with a quick, nervous, smile.
The duchess received them in a sitting room that, if rich and elegant, was at least more human in scale.
She offered a cheek to Aldridge for a kiss, and a hand to Hugh. Becky held back.
“Come, my dear,” she coaxed. “Mrs Winstanley, is it not? Soon to be Baroness Overton. You shall kiss me, my dear, and I shall be godmother to your child, since I cannot claim the closer title.”
Hugh relaxed, then. Her Grace would champion them for her grandchild’s sake. He took the offered chair, and Aldridge leant against the mantelpiece. The duchess ignored them both to focus on Becky.
She insisted on Becky sitting beside her.
“Are you keeping well, my dear? Are you eating?”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Becky’s voice was so quiet Hugh had to lean forward to hear.
“You must eat several times a day, dear. More as the baby takes up more room…” she trailed off as Becky blushed scarlet. “And when do you expect the little one to arrive?”
“At Yuletide, Ma’am. Or perhaps early January.”
“What of sleep, Mrs Winstanley? Are you able to rest in the afternoons?” She turned to Hugh. “An afternoon rest is most efficacious for women who are increasing, Lord Overton. I will expect you to keep her in bed in the afternoon.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Hugh replied, blushing in his turn.
The duchess silenced her sniggering son with a raised eyebrow.