This is the part two of my new Regency erotic short story, A Tale of Town and Country. I will be publishing it in short installments (serial format) on this blog over the coming weeks. If you would like to be notified when new chapters are released, please sign up for my mail list. Read part one first!
Avery surveyed the fearsome battalion of papers on his desk. He swallowed a ball of fear, considered a strategic retreat and thereby stubbed his toe, mentally speaking, against a hard and unexpected truth: no man truly wanted the duties of a duke, but once a man assumed the exalted position he was forbidden from complaining because no one would believe he didn’t want the power and prestige that came with it. Until this moment he, too, would have scoffed to hear a wealthy duke say, “By Jove, never wanted this bloody job! Why couldn’t my elder brother’s wife have pushed out a few sons?”
Good army man that he was, he knew, when holding a field position with no way but forward, it was Charge ahead! with everything he had. Over the next few days he ran rough-shod over the accounts until he began to make sense of the columns of numbers coming at him in endless waves like lines of enemy soldiers. He struggled to keep up correspondence with his immediate family in Wiltshire. He spent hours in the saddle with his bailiff touring the grounds, meeting his tenants, listening to their needs, their grievances, until his head was dizzy. He clutched a sheet a paper tightly crossed and recrossed on both sides with the names of his staff and consulted it regularly. He took his supper in solitary splendor and spent the rest of his evening in similar state. He awoke more than once in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Sitting straight up in a magnificent bed in an equally magnificent chamber, he was unable to utter the words that terror had frozen on his lips: I do not want to do it! I cannot do it!
After two weeks of what he acidly termed the Siege of Bradford – the irony deriving, of course, from the fact there existed no terms of his surrender – he was given to understand by Marlow, his steward, that perhaps it was time his grace met with the inhabitants of the villages in his neighborhood. This gentle suggestion was accompanied by a list of names of the people who could expect to be recognized by the duke and by Marlow’s kind offer to set up his grace’s schedule of visits.
When, ten days later, this tedium came to an end, Avery said to Marlow, “And the inhabitants of Hartsfield?”
A fraction of a second fell before Marlow answered, “I doubt anyone there expects to be recognized, Your Grace.”
“I’ll recognize them anyway,” he said, thinking of the gray-eyed chit.
Thus it was the next morning he approached the odd intersection in the hamlet anticipating his visit with Miss Beatrice Castle. The most he had learned about her from Marlow was that she was likely wealthy and ‘most unfortunately unconventional.’ Avery would determine the case for himself.
The meeting certainly began unconventionally because Miss Castle was not waiting for him inside her house, as he would have expected. Instead, when he arrived, she was standing at the side of the lane where he had first encountered her. She was as pretty as he remembered, her dress modish but also modest, her bonnet a sweet confection of straw and flowers. Upon seeing her, he swung off his horse and greeted her.
“Your Grace,” she replied with a very slight nod. She gestured to the boy next to her. “Take care of his grace’s horse, if you please, Jimmy.” To him he said, “He’s the youngest brother of Jarod who is one of your stable hands. He shows the promise of his older brother, so you can be sure your horse will be well tended.”
Eyeing the very young boy doubtfully Avery had little choice but to hand over Morocco’s reins, after which Miss Castle gestured for him to accompany her to a cottage across the street. She opened a half-door, and he followed, having to doff his hat and bend his head to pass under the low frame. As she crossed the room without stopping she offered brief greetings to the two women inhabiting it.
He glanced at them and suffered a shock. The first woman was unremarkable and likely nearing forty. However, next to her sat a girl holding an infant. He caught sight of her at the very moment she was transferring the infant from one breast to the other. Her blouse was completely open, and he had a perfect glimpse of spectacular ripeness. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the moment was the lack of attention the two women paid him. Their focus was on the nursing infant.
Miss Castle led him to an open courtyard, which was defined by the back wall of the cottage they had just passed through and two long, low buildings on either side. The fourth side of the courtyard, which was opposite the back wall of the cottage, was open. Just outside stood a stone well, beyond which rolled well-tended fields to the far horizon. She led him to a table set with a lace cloth and two chairs and set in the mid-morning shade provided by the corner of the back wall of the cottage and the building to the east. With a smile she gestured for him to sit.
“I thought it best to show you what we do at Hartsfield,” she said, taking her place, “rather than tell you.” She paused, holding his gaze steady, then continued, “It’s not a Magdalene I run, because none of the girls are reformed prostitutes. No, it’s rather a home for girls who have nowhere else to turn in time of need.”
He had the fleeting, slightly aggrieved feeling that Miss Castle’s choice of showing rather than telling was not quite fair, because how was he supposed to think about anything but breasts, having just seen such a glorious pair? Not to mention the fact that Miss Castle herself had a very attractive figure, and it was difficult, if not impossible, to suppress a vision of her holding an infant with her blouse open. He cleared his throat, knowing he needed to say something.
He managed, “Tell me.”
“I find serving girls in London who have been mistreated, and I provide food and shelter for them from, say, their fourth month of pregnancy to several weeks after delivery.”
“I see,” was the best he could do.
“After that the girls have a decision to make. They can either join my staff here or they can return to London, with or without their child, and go back to work. It often depends on the situation in their family. Some of the families welcome their daughters back – and I make great efforts to reconcile a family faced with a child born on the wrong side of the blanket that is no fault of their daughter. I am not always successful, but largely.”
Still struggling to master his surprise – and whatever other emotions were swirling through his chest and gut – titillation? embarrassment? – he plucked what he could from the explanation. “With or without their child?”
“It’s not easy to earn a living while raising a child alone, especially if the girl’s family has rejected her. So I’ve established a crèche, which will develop over time into a school for the children who have been left here. No mother ever wants to abandon her child, but some see it’s for the best. Of course, they can visit as often as they like. Whatever their choice, there’s plenty of work here to be done.”
He looked around and became aware of mild activity. He saw three girls in advanced stages of pregnancy involved in various tasks. One was drawing water from the well just beyond the courtyard. Another was carrying what looked to be a pile of folded cloth. The third had a basket in the crook of her arm and was heading toward the cottage. None of them paid him any attention. Nor did Miss Castle attempt to attract their notice. Young women with bountiful breasts, swollen bellies, curvaceous hips and shapely arses surrounded him. He paused to take in the slow, pleasant rhythms of activity, the peace and quiet of the courtyard, the promise of new life that was Hartsfield. He was alone with a beautiful young woman of good birth without a chaperone, and she was speaking to him of things beautiful young women of good birth did not.
A girl with the beginning of a belly came into the courtyard from the side building nearest them and approached Miss Castle. When she came close Miss Castle reached out and took the girl’s hand in hers.
“What can I do for you, Sarah?”
“I’ve finished the mending, and I’ve dug up the vegetables for Cook’s stew. What would you have me do next, miss?”
He listened, beguiled, while soft voices discussed gentle activities. His gaze rested on their clasped hands. When Sarah left, he asked, “How old is she?”
Miss Castle’s expression was serene, but he could guess her feelings when she said, “Fifteen.”
He looked away. He felt as if he were a newborn, washed upon a foreign shore. At the same time he was a grown man, aware and aroused in this bower of fertile femininity. Unmistakable feelings of desire gathered in his gut, their most logical and immediate target being the woman seated next to him. For a moment he wondered who he was and where he was. His first, feeble understanding told him he was not a solider and he was not at Waterloo.
Then it came to him: I’m a stranger in paradise.
Beatrice saw her unlikely guest was disconcerted, but he was doing a worthy job of keeping his composure. For her part, she was never missish about the facts of life, whose fruit surrounded them. To smooth things along she lifted the little bell on the table and rang it.
She heard him clear his throat a second time before asking, “How do you find the girls?”
“They come to me now,” she told him. “Yes,” she said, in response to his expression, which seemed to betray further surprise, “my work has become known by word of mouth, and I have more requests for assistance than I can handle. I could fill a good sized town with girls from all over England in similar circumstance.”
He quirked his brows and shifted in his chair. His possible discomfiture at her frank statement was covered by the appearance of Cook bearing a tray with a teapot, two cups, cream and sugar, a plate of cakes and a bowl of berries.
She prepared his tea and handed it to him, saying, “Because the nature of my work is delicate, I’ve had to move very slowly to let the good folk of Hartsfield adapt to our presence.” She arranged a piece of cake and some berries on a plate and put it in front of him. “I began with one girl two years ago and now add another girl every six months, which means in the New Year I’ll have five girls here at one time.”
He sipped his tea. She was content to let him take as long as he needed to adjust to what must be unusual circumstances for him. She had not invited him, after all, and she would not have been the least offended if he had not come calling. But since he had, she saw no reason not to be forthright.
After a long moment he put his cup down and looked at her, his gaze now as steady as her own. “You say the girls were mistreated. How can you be sure?”
She accepted the question as fair. “I have turned away a bold and indignant girl or two,” she informed him, “who, upon investigation, was motivated to come to me to spite a lover or to help her entrap him. More fool she! However, when a girl comes to me bewildered and scared and fearful of naming the father, I am determined to get to the bottom of things. What I invariably find is some unscrupulous man with a hold over the poor girl.” She paused. “And then I get to work.”
She saw she had his full attention. He asked, “Which means what, exactly?”
“If the culprit is not a peer of the realm,” she was happy to inform him, “it is rather easy to persuade domestic agencies not to fulfill vacancies in the houses where my girls were molested until significant changes have taken place.” She made an equivocal gesture. “If it’s a man with a title, my job is a bit more difficult but still not impossible, and several of my investigations have led virtuous noblemen to purchase officer commissions for their less virtuous sons.”
“Let’s hope their sons did not end up dying for their – ” he stopped short.
“Indiscretions?” she supplied with an arched brow then added coolly, “If they did, at least they left legacies of themselves behind.”
He blinked then commented, “Harsh.”
She did not back down. “So are these girls’ lives.”
His mild grunt seemed to acknowledge her point then he stretched out long legs, drew a breath and seemed to ease into his surroundings. “It’s a new world you’ve opened up to me,” he admitted. He looked down at his hands – nicely shaped, she noticed, with long fingers and well-kept nails. He seemed to be engaged in internal debate. Finally he looked up and said, “I hope I’ll be able to see you again.”
She felt a split second’s surprise before she realized I feel it, too. She would have to think long and hard about the implications of his stated hope, but that was for later. Her immediate response was to chuckle and say, “I would look forward to it, Your Grace, and now you’ve told me a good deal more about your reception in the neighborhood than you had perhaps intended!”
His brows rose in inquiry.
“If you are seeking my simple company, I can only imagine our neighbors have force-fed you roasts and creams and cakes and toasted you with wines and ports and brandies, not to mention made you converse with toadying squires, vicars seeking your patronage and every eligible woman within fifty miles.”
He was unable to conceal his pained expression. “Very good, Miss Castle!”
She shook her head. “Not so difficult, Your Grace. I had the advantage to see you arrive without an elaborate entourage and concluded you aren’t high in the instep. So I imagined you would prefer” – her gesture encompassed their surroundings – “to see us as we are.”
His smile momentarily took her breath away. The man had dimples! “And if you had seen the new duke arrive in a fine carriage with outriders fore and aft and another carriage solely for his trunks? What then?”
She laughed at the thought of such an august personage condescending to visit her and answered honestly, “I’d have mustered all the pomp and circumstance I could contrive! Let’s see…. Everyone would line up in the street to greet him – decked out in their finest! – the pregnant girls shielded in the second row to soften possible offence. Mrs. Hutchins and Anna’s mother would sit with us to play gooseberry, and Cook’s husband would serve us a sumptuous mid-morning tea.”
He shuddered delicately clearly in reminiscence of the grand receptions he had lately endured, causing her to laugh again. “But if you wish for a simple visit and frank conversation with me,” she said, “it will have to be soon, because I leave for London in the next few weeks.”
He seemed surprised. “That’s rather early, isn’t it? Well before the opening of the Season.”
How misguided of him to think she was a respectable member of Society who would attend springtime balls and galas, Venetian ridottos at Vauxhall, Almack’s and all manner of entertainment for the Upper Ten Thousand. And how sweet of him to imagine her as such while sitting in these far from respectable circumstances. His assumption was almost touching, but she had no compunction disillusioning him.
She shook her head and replied, “I’m in trade, Your Grace.”
He looked startled. “Trade?”
“Property,” she said. “I manage properties. Not unlike what you do.” She smiled. She needed to make her position clear. “But yet again worlds apart from what you do.”
He stared at her, unblinking, for a long moment. What he chose to say at last was, “Are you good at it?”
He took her announcement rather well, she thought. Now she had even more to mull over later. She answered, “Tolerable, but I’ve had years of practice now, while I’m guessing you’re just getting started. Before you take your leave, tell me how you’re adapting to your new role.”
“It’s a damnable business,” he said, making no apology for his language, “and nothing I’ve done in my life until this point has trained me for the duties.” He paused then shrugged. “No, not nothing. I’m at home in the saddle where I’ve been spending a good third to a half of my days.”
He went on to outline how he’d passed the preceding three weeks. Learning the names of his staff, his tenants and his neighbors alone was a Herculean task he had not yet mastered. On the whole the saving grace of the enterprise, he acknowledged, was the fact that the Fifth Duke had left this estate, at least, in good heart, and his bailiff, steward and head housekeeper were knowledgeable and competent. He had not yet thought ahead to attending to the other properties he had inherited, the ones in Devon and Hampshire and somewhere else, one he momentarily forgot. Recalling it to mind, he said rather glumly, “Ah, yes, Yorkshire.”
“You object to its climate?”
“I’ve slept in a tent in the midst of snow, so I’m no stranger to cold,” he informed her. “I object to its distance.”
As she listened she realized his need to unburden himself. Still a soldier at heart he clearly chafed under his new responsibilities. There were moments while he was talking when she felt he was on the edge of being overwhelmed by them. When she had planned for his visit and decided to openly present to him her work and her girls, her idea had been only that honesty was the best policy. Added to which it would have been ludicrous to attempt to dress up the courtyard in a style befitting a duke. Now, however, she saw her lack of attempt to impress him had been a boon for him. In not striving to make the occasion about him, she opened a space where he need not play an uncomfortable role and could relax enough to confide. It was impossible not to like this attractive, battle-hardened man who cared as much about those under his aegis as she did about those under hers.
Presently he recalled himself and, with a hint of a self-conscious flush, begged her pardon. “I have bent your ear beyond the bounds of good taste, I’m afraid. A social call is not an occasion to open a nasty budget. I have unforgivably traded on your good nature, Miss Castle!”
“No, Your Grace,” she said, by way of excusing him, “as I was listening to you, the thought occurred to me: Well, it’s a big job and someone’s got to do it. I’m sure you’re just the right person to carry on.”
“You wouldn’t say so if you knew the number of times I tally a column twice and do not get the same number both times.”
She smiled. “Tallying twice shows you’re careful.”
His laugh was wry. He stood up. “Enough! You cannot coax me into thinking myself fit for the job.”
She stood up too. “No, but perhaps you’ll become accustomed.”
They turned toward the back entranced to the cottage. As they moved through the little room she noticed that his grace kept his eyes fixed straight ahead and spared no glance for Anna or her mother. When they were in the lane he took her hand and looked into her eyes. The gleam in the depths of his dark gaze was particularly warm.
“You’ve given me a bit of respite, and I thank you,” he said with a bow. He bent his head down but not far enough for his lips to touch the back of her hand. He straightened and said, “I’d like to see you again before you leave Hartsfield. It may happen.”
She nodded. “You’ll find your horse three cottages down on the left.” Then she turned and crossed the street to her house, sending him a small wave in parting.
She opened the door and leaned her back against it to close it, lost in thought. She couldn’t help thinking that if she were a debutante, he might pursue her. She guessed that as he rode away he was considering how he might manoeuver around the problem of the difference in their stations. There would be no getting around it, however, because he had no idea how much her background made her unsuitable for any kind of respectable relationship with him.
The impish possibility of an unrespectable relationship smiled and winked at her. For the first time in her life she gave a thought to acting on her unsuitability. A delightfully devilish plan sprang to mind.