Shaftesburys England


An Eternity of You - EXCERPT

Chapter One

Wiltshire, England, 1833

Blood lingered forever on a man’s hands. Particularly when the crimson stains of lives once thriving came from quite willfully obtuse neglect.

With a heavy sigh, Andrew Wingrave, Duke of Sharrington, rubbed at a callous beneath his thumb as the estate manager of his recently deceased father briefed him on six years worth of what could only be considered negligence. Only, the lack of attention Andrew had paid to his duchy in Wiltshire did not come from the apathy his tenant farmers assumed. Rather, it stemmed from too much concern. As in too much interest in a certain surgeon’s daughter who had commanded Andrew’s young heart. He had forcibly tried to put her out of his mind before he ruined her entirely, failing to consider the other, more permanent ramifications of turning a blind eye to his father’s declining mental capabilities. Now, with his father’s passing, he had no choice but to assume responsibility and confront what he had vainly tried to escape. But he should have returned to Sharrington much sooner.

“Seventy pounds is required to mend the mill’s wheel.” Sitting across the desk from Andrew in the study, Mr. Landess droned on, his voice as unimpassioned as his flat, emotionless expression. “One third of the weavers have refused to come in until the risk of the immense thing falling is removed.” He looked over the top of his spectacles. “What can you expect? The vast majority are all women. My recommendation is to replace them immediately with wives of the seasonal workers who have decided to winter here at your expense. Put them to work. Make them useful.”

Andrew frowned. “Seventy pounds is not unmanageable. Why not simply correct the problem?” For an instant, he was grateful he’d spent six months selecting an empathetic manager for his earldom in Sussex before returning here. One vastly different from this man.

Guilt punched him again. He should have been more involved in overseeing the property that would eventually fall on his shoulders, instead of pretending he could forget Sharrington. Though he could not claim the title while his father lived, it should have been him overseeing the management, or at least overseeing this man, not Andrew’s unstable father. He let out another heavy sigh.

Mr. Landess’s mouth firmed with characteristic impatience. He set his stack of reports on Andrew’s desk and braced his plump forearms atop them. “Your Grace, I’ve been employed here for several years and your father trusted my guidance. Since your return two days ago, you have questioned my recommendations at every turn. Have I offended you in some manner? Misguided your interests?”

“No, no,” Andrew hurried to reassure. He could not fault Landess entirely. He insured the accounts were in line, kept the debts minimal, and provided timely reports. Yet if Landess had shown a bit more concern over the populace, as opposed to the financial profits, Sharrington would be in better repair. “My father was not himself for many years. You have served his interests well, but he is gone, and I am duke here now, Mr. Landess. I wish to be involved, as this will be my daughter’s future. I want it to be secure.”

“Pardon me, Your Grace, but your daughter is only five. Tighten the expenses further, and by the time she is of marriageable age, her dowry will make her quite attractive.”

Frowning, Andrew reclined in his velvet-covered chair and looked to the window. Memories threatened at the edge of his mind, visions of a childhood spent here, riding horses with Stephen Rycroft and his younger sister, Rebecca. Summers of laughter. Christmases of plenty. All things he wanted his daughter, Alice, to experience now that she had lost her mother.

“Your Grace, think on the matter of the mill for a few days. Soon you will see the outstretched hands as precisely what they are—unfounded laziness.” Landess gathered his papers once more, shuffled through them, and placed them on his knees. “This request you sent me a fortnight ago, that of the butchering of hogs.”

Andrew raised an eyebrow and leaned forward, shoving thoughts of Rebecca aside as he had been doing for half a decade. He gave Landess a short nod. “Yes. You have spoken to the butcher and secured the hogs that are to be distributed among the poor?”

Landess hesitated a moment before answering, “Not exactly.”

“What do you mean, not exactly? My instructions were specific. Ten fat hogs, purchased from whoever is responsible for raising them now. I want them butchered and disbursed throughout the village.”
Landess’s black eyes narrowed. “Do you realize the cost in such a gesture?”

“I don’t care what it costs me. I cannot establish myself here without, in some fashion, showing my care for the lands I own and the people who tend it for me.”

“I am not talking of the financial expense, but the greater cost. In so doing, you will establish expectations of future gifts.”

Exasperated, Andrew slapped an open palm on the desk. “Good God, it is Christmas! By your own account, our harvest was poor. Feed these people, Landess!”

“But hogs, Your Grace? We have enough grain to distribute fairly and supply them for the remainder of winter. There is no need—”

The door to Andrew’s office burst open, snapping his attention off the beady-eyed manager who was little more than an opportunistic rat.

Fortescue, Andrew’s aged valet, rushed in. His bent shoulders heaved as he wheezed for breath. “Your Grace, you must come!” He sucked in a great gulp of air. “Alice…fell.”

At the mention of his daughter’s name, Andrew bolted out of his chair. He rounded the corner of his desk and crossed the room at a jog, Landess forgotten. “Fell? How? Where?”

Fortescue raised a withered arm to the window. “The tree you used to climb…I told her…”

Andrew didn’t need to hear the rest. He raced down the hall and out the front door, heading for the great oak at the corner of the property. If Alice heard he had climbed the gnarled giant, she would try as well.

He crested the slight hill and spied her red winter wrapper flapping in the breeze on a low branch. She lay motionless at the base of the wide trunk, so still, his heart stopped a moment. Dear God, no. He would not lose her, not when he had exhausted all his prayers to keep her alive so very recently. You cannot have her!

Biting down fear, he doubled his pace. He never should have left her in Fortescue’s care. The man was honest and reliable, yet old. True the manor was severely understaffed still, but he could have asked the housekeeper to step away from her responsibilities for a short while. She enjoyed children as much as Fortescue.

Alice turned her head toward his footfalls. “Daddy!” she wailed.

Relief swamped him. Not dead. Just quiet in her usual, courageous way. Thank the Lord.

“I’m here.” Andrew reached her side and knelt. He reached for her shoulder to draw her into his arms, then stayed his hand. Just beneath the elbow, her right arm bent at an awkward and unnatural angle. Blood trickled through a jagged rend in her long sleeve, and the ghastly protrusion of white just beneath the fine fabric made his stomach roll.

“Oh, sweetheart.” Carefully, he slipped his hands under her frail body and scooped her into his arms.
“It hurts, Daddy.” She bit down on her lower lip, her wide blue eyes brimming with tears she tried to retain.

“Shh, shh.” He smoothed a hand over her back, cradling her close. “I know. You don’t have to be brave. Cry if you want, angel.”

“No.” She shook her head, sending soft blond curls scattering. “Crying is for babies.”

Andrew couldn’t help but chuckle. Since the day she had learned to walk, she had been as independent and stubborn as a mule. These last eight months, as she came to terms with first her grandparents’ deaths, and then her mother’s, she determined to be more and more like him, or so she claimed.

But despite her brave demeanor, the misshapen bend to her arm struck deep concern within him. Would the bones fuse together? Would she forever be maligned? He frowned severely as he carried her back to the stone manor house. With each jarring step he took, Alice whimpered. Sounds that clawed at his heart. How he despised seeing her suffer.

She sniffled, blinked, and the tears coursed down her cheeks. “Daddy, fix it.”

Andrew nodded. “We will, angel.” He took the front steps two at a time and shouldered through the door.

Fortescue waited inside, his wrinkled face a mask of worry. “I’m sorry, Your Grace. She wouldn’t listen. Then her foot slipped—”

Shaking his head, Andrew dismissed the old man from responsibility. “It’s not your fault. Fetch me a blanket and then send the footman for the surgeon.” Isaac Rycroft was the best physician Andrew knew. He had been educated at Oxford, but chose to disassociate from his peers by doing surgeon’s work in the country. Alice would be in good hands.

Rebecca flitted through his mind, a brief flash of chestnut hair and a beguiling smile. The sound of her laughter rang through his memory. Would she accompany her father as she had done so often when she was younger? Longing stirred, a yearning Andrew didn’t dare acknowledge. She was likely married now; they had been doomed from birth.

“Your driver is with the blacksmith. I will go myself,” Fortescue declared, reaching for his coat.
Not wanting his elderly servant to exhaust himself, Andrew opened his mouth to object. But the worry and concern etched into Fortescue’s weathered features, along with a heavy touch of guilt, told Andrew no amount of protest would stop his valet. He let out a sigh. “Very well.”

As Fortescue ambled out the front door, Andrew dusted a kiss over the top of his daughter’s head. “You’re going to be fine, Alice. Just fine.”

“Daddy, it’s cold.”

“The blanket is coming, darling.” He clutched her a wee bit closer to share his body heat.

She sniffled once more then her courage shattered. Tears poured down her cheeks. Through choked sobs, she cried, “I want Mum.”

Something deep inside Andrew twisted. In eight months, he had grieved outwardly as was expected of a widower, but the pain he knew he should feel over the loss of his wife had never surfaced. Hearing his daughter call out for her brought forth that emotion. Not for the loss of Georgina, his wife, but for what his daughter suffered in her absence. If he could have one Christmas wish, it would be to bring Georgina back to life, despite the lack of fulfillment the marriage brought. Alice needed her family.
He rested his cheek against Alice’s head and whispered, “I know, angel. So do I.”


“There you are, Mrs. Clemsley.” Rebecca Rycroft rocked back on weary ankles and flashed her elderly patient a smile. She patted the woman’s bandaged hand affectionately. “Poultice applied and cut re-bandaged. Watch that stove now. We can’t have you burning your fingers off, can we? I need your stuffed bears too much.”

“Oh, Rebecca, you’re too kind. Your poppa would be so proud of you.” Bending, Mrs. Clemsley collected her wicker basket of knitting needles and spun wool and hooked her good arm through the handle. She rose, her bandaged hand pressed into the small of her back. “If only your poultices could cure the empty bellies in the village.”

Rebecca smoothed her hands down the front of her worn skirt and stood. Her smile strained. Not much earlier, she’d wished the same for her own belly. “Yes, well. We can look forward to spring, can’t we?” She turned her back on her patient to dip her hands in a basin of fresh water. While washing, she glanced over her shoulder. “One week. I want to check your burns then.”

“Of course, dear.” Mrs. Clemsley paused at the heavy tapestry dividing Rebecca’s patient room from the central hearth room of her home. “Perhaps the Duke of Sharrington’s return will see things changed for the better.”

Rebecca let out a disdainful snort. “I will believe it when I see it.” Andrew Wingrave’s last promises had proven worthless. She held little hope that his return would bring anything different. His very name left a bitter taste in her mouth. Selfish bastard.

Mrs. Clemsley tipped her head to the side. “Wasn’t your father close to His Grace’s father? How long ago did he take ill? My memory fails me. Aging is not fun, my dear.”

Sighing, Rebecca nodded. “Yes, they were close. His mind began to decline six, almost seven years ago, Maude. Just prior to the new Duke of Sharrington’s bout with typhus. Recall, that is why the family left for London initially?” An event that had led to the destruction of Rebecca’s life, and one she didn’t care to consider.

“Ah, yes, that’s right. I recall it now.” She chuckled. “They were so afraid they would catch their son’s sickness. Such a shame the Duke’s father declined so rapidly and couldn’t return. Things might be so very different now.”

Wanting to escape talk of Andrew’s family, Rebecca forced another smile. “If you’ll pardon me, I must call upon Octavia Randolf. Her time is rapidly approaching.”

“Oh, of course! I am terribly sorry. I didn’t mean to keep you from your work.” Mrs. Clemsley pushed the fading violet tapestry aside. As she stepped into the adjoining room, the makeshift curtain fell into place behind her.

A moment later, the old woman let out a surprised squeak.

Curious, Rebecca moved to inspect the sound. If Thomas had taken to hiding behind the rush box and surprising her patients again, he was in for several days of confinement in his bedroom. She poked her head outside, a reprimand on the tip of her tongue.

When she spied the hunched-over elderly gentleman in her entryway, instead of her son, she too stopped short. Another patient—did they never stop? Soon, she would be out of supplies. A fact that wouldn’t be of issue if any one of them could afford to pay, so she could replenish her stores. Sadly, too few could manage even a few shillings, much less the rates her father had established.

But there was something off about this gentleman. Though his expression was as haggard as the rest of them, his clothes were in better repair. His boots bore dust from the road, yet he was otherwise immaculately turned-out. She quizzed him with a frown. “May I help you?”

“Miss Rebecca.” A broad, affectionate smile spread across his gaunt face. “It makes a heart warm to see you, pet.”

Pet. Only one person had ever dubbed her such. Her heart skipped a joyful beat. “Fortescue? Is that you?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He touched bent fingers to the tip of his hat and dipped his chin.

Oh, good Lord. At once nervous, her gaze skipped over his shoulder to the open entryway. Had Andrew accompanied his valet? If that lying creature dared to set foot on her stoop—

“Your father’s services are needed at Sharrington Manor,” Fortescue continued. “If you’ll point me to where I might find him, I won’t trouble you.”

A bitter chuckle slid off Rebecca’s lips. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. My father is dead.”

“Dead?” Fortescue blinked. “Oh, pet, I am so terribly sorry to hear that news. He was a good man. And a good friend. Is there another surgeon available?”

Mrs. Clemsley sidled up to the old man and patted his arm. “Rebecca is the surgeon now. The best in three counties.”

Bless her heart. Warmth blossomed behind Rebecca’s ribs. The old woman might be poorer than dirt and use more of Rebecca’s supplies than many, but she was loyal. She had been integral to erasing the shame that descended on the Rycroft name after Andrew’s departure. Now, she was as much family as Rebecca’s father had ever been.

“Good afternoon, Rebecca,” Mrs. Clemsley called gaily. “I will return next week.” She ducked through the doorway before Rebecca could give her a parting embrace.

Rebecca dried her hands on the front of her skirt more thoroughly. “I won’t claim three counties, but I am the only choice you have presently. What is the trouble, Fortescue?”

“His Grace’s daughter.”

Daughter. Like a stone fist driven into her diaphragm, the word froze her lungs. Pain lanced across her heart. With that traitorous emotion, anger surfaced. She gritted her teeth to hold in a caustic remark. Andrew didn’t deserve emotion. He had wrenched all she possessed out of her years ago.

She swept through the room and collected her heavy wool cloak off a nail near her bedroom door. “I’m sorry. I have an appointment. His daughter will have to wait.”

Fortescue swept his hat off his head and clutched it in both hands. “Please, pet. She’s broken her arm. The bone is protruding.”

Damnation. Her cloak half draped about her shoulders, Rebecca paused. If it had been anyone else, she wouldn’t have hesitated. But she would rather consort with the devil than share space with Andrew and his new family.

Lives first, emotions later. Her father’s mantra droned in her head. Slowly, she slid into the remainder of her cloak and fastened the collar. Octavia Randolf’s pregnancy ranked second to a compound fracture. An exposed bone could bring on severe illness, perhaps even fatal sickness. If Rebecca turned away from the child, she would never sleep tonight.

“Very well, Fortescue,” she conceded quietly. “Give me a moment, and I will come with you.”
His worried expression cleared. Relief shone in his dark eyes. “Oh, thank you.”

Nodding, Rebecca eased open her son’s bedroom door and slipped inside. Thomas sat on the floor, a game of marbles spread out before him. He glanced up with a grin. “Look, Mother, I am winning!”
Few things could shed the troubles that plagued Rebecca’s waking hours like her son’s merry demeanor. She yielded to her first genuine chuckle all day. “Just be certain you don’t cheat.”
His gaze skipped over her. “Are you leaving?”

She bent to press a kiss to his cheek. Straightening, she drew her fingers through his coal-black hair. “Yes. Your father has summoned me.”

His brows furrowed for an instant, before he shrugged his shoulders and picked up his large white shooter. “Oh.”

They had talked about this; she’d warned him sooner or later Andrew would require medical services. Thomas displayed the same disinterest now as he did then. But the flat tone to his voice sparked fury through Rebecca all over again. Andrew had run away to Sussex with his respectable bride, not one damn given to the destruction he caused.

She rumpled Thomas’s hair again. “I will return in time for supper.”

“All right. Shall I bring in more logs for the stove?”

“If you can manage.”

He puffed up his six-year-old shoulders and squared his chin. “I can manage.”

“Very well, Thomas. I will put the sign out. Don’t answer the door.” With winter on them now, she worried each time she had to leave that someone might attempt to take her supplies, and Thomas would end up somehow harmed.

“Yes, Mother,” he answered absently, his attention back on the game.

Rebecca let herself out of his room and grabbed her father’s worn traveling bag off a wooden chair. “Let us go, Fortescue. I wish to have this completed quickly.” Before her heart could remember Andrew’s words of love and how glorious it felt to believe them.


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