When the patron of the Foundling School takes pity upon young orphan, Georgiana (Ana) Weston, Lady Dunston raises her as one of her own. However, years pass and Lady Dunston's health begins to fail. With the Longworth estate entailed away, Ana is faced with an uncertain future.
Mr. Luke Renshaw still mourns the loss of his parents, and would rather travel the world than live in a place that reminds him of so much pain and loss. But responsibilities await, and when his only aunt becomes sick, he returns to Longworth. After all, it is where he will receive his inheritance.
Luke and Ana used to play together as children, though many years have passed and much has changed. The prospect of marriage without love holds little hope for their romantic ideals, and yet it seems the most sensible solution for both parties.
1 May 1859
Longworth Hall, Luxbury
“Her condition worsens.” Ana placed the back of her hand on Lady Dunston’s forehead and grimaced. “Has Mr. Renshaw been sent for?”
“Yes, though I wonder if word has yet reached him.” Mrs. Pridmore tutted. “What business has the boy with traveling so far from home when his aunt be in the state she is?” She shook her head. “It’s not right.”
Ana wrung a cloth in tepid water and replaced it on her guardian’s face. “I fear there is little that can be done, although I am no physician. The doctor…”
“Yes miss, he will call in this eve.”
She waited for the housekeeper to leave before exhaling her frustrations. The staff expected her to be strong, but with her future so uncertain, it was difficult to remain positive. She kneaded the tension from her neck brought on by her arduous night of sleeping in the chair.
As ward of the grand Lady Dunston, she held an unusual rank within society. She was neither servant, nor family. Upon her guardian’s death, what would happen to her? It was unlikely that Luke would want her to stay, even though they were once childhood friends, they’d not been acquainted in years.
She walked over to the long window, relishing in the sunlight’s warmth. The most plausible solution was to seek a position as a governess. She sighed. Did she wish to teach? Not particularly, but if it kept her from becoming homeless… She could be a lady’s companion but was unaware of anyone seeking such a person.
Defeated, she slumped onto the window seat. A suitable marriage was the only solution, but with her questionable breeding and lack of fortune, utterly impossible.
The hail pelted harder, and Luke ducked his head down, leaving a meager slit of visibility between his cloak and hat. With one arm on the reins, his horse veered to the right, sliding on rocky ground.
He patted her mane. “Easy, girl.” He’d ridden for too long, but he was nearly home. Was Aunt May even alive? She’d always been of a sickly nature and inevitably suffered from one ailment or another. However, Aunt insisted he go on his travels, and, in all honesty, Luke needed little persuasion on the matter. Since his parents’ tragic death, he found no solace in the village of Luxbury, which held so many memories.
His stomach growled, reminding him he’d passed teatime, and he’d not eaten since morning. With relief, the sight of Longworth Hall came into view, with its gleaming white limestone and grand Italianate architecture standing proudly amongst unkempt lawns.
Luke wrinkled his nose at the estate’s poor upkeep. He dismounted and frowned, no one came to tend to his horse. He rapped sharply on the oak door and waited. For goodness sake. Where was Carter? He charged through to the entrance hall and sprinted up the grand staircase, skipping three steps at a time, his footsteps echoing through the country house. Storming through the bedroom corridor, he headed for Aunt May’s room.
In the corner of the chamber, a woman in liveries bent over the fireplace. She glanced up at him and dropped the gathering of kindling she’d held in her arms, the wood thudding to the floor. A small yelp, followed by a gasp escaped her, and a sooty hand flung to her mouth.
His gaze swung over to the grand four-poster bed, its morbid curtains drawn back to reveal his aunt, ill indeed. Beads of sweat lingered upon her forehead.
“Why do you make a fire?” he asked the maid. “She is full of fever.”
The young woman hesitated. “She complained of the cold. I opened a window to let in the fresh air.”
Indeed, the room was chilly. He buttoned his coat and positioned himself next to the bed. “Where are the servants? My horse needs attention.”
The maid deposited the wood neatly beside the fireplace. “Manfred will tend to your horse, though he is on an errand in the village, at present.”
“The manservant, sir.”
Luke edged closer to the fire’s flames. It had been a while since his last visit, but truly, he didn’t recognize any of the servants. “And where is Carter?”
The maid pulled a face. “The old butler? He’s been gone for some time… there are but six remaining household staff.”
Luke swallowed hard at the thought of abandoning his duty. He was heir after all.
Next to him, his aunt moaned, and he turned his attention to her, taking her small bony hand within his own.
“Has my prodigal nephew really returned to me?” Her voice was raspy with ill-use. “I can scarce believe it.”
Luke stared at the maid in the corner. She was clearly enraptured by their conversation. As he met her eye, she glanced away, heat rushing to her face. She gathered her things and left.
He drew his attention back to Aunt. “Prodigal is a little harsh.”
Aunt May chuckled, which led to a bout of coughing, and she drew her hand from his and pressed a handkerchief to her mouth.
Luke grabbed the glass of water from the side table and offered it to her.
Guilt wrestled within his gut. “Who has been taking care of you?”
She patted his arm. “I’ve Georgiana for company.”
“What, little Ana? That small foundling you took in for a season?”
“Yes, Miss Georgiana Weston. It was more than a trifle season; I assure you. Why, you were always at school, if I recall. Ana has turned into a marvelous young woman and so accomplished. She has been my only true companion these last few years.”
He’d not given the girl much thought. After his parents’ death, he’d remained at Oxford during the holiday periods and later traveled Europe.
“She was here when you came in.”
“Yes, by the fire. You spoke to her.”
“That, was Ana? Why I thought her to be the maid!” Things were indeed dire. Bidding his leave, he went in search of his room. The candles were unlit, despite the fading daylight, another example of the estate suffering financially. The once elaborate house was sparse in comparison to his memory of a decade ago. Dust sheets covered the unused furniture and spaces appeared on the walls from paintings that had been sold.
And this was his inheritance.
Ana stared into the mirror in utter disbelief. “This is how you present yourself to Luke Renshaw.” Ten years since he’d last laid eyes on her, and nothing had changed since that time except, she’d like to think, an improved appearance. Apart from now, of course, when she depicted a glorified scullery maid.
Discarding the filthy working clothes, she’d borrowed from Betty, she reached into the washbasin with vigor, scrubbing at her hands and under her fingernails until it hurt. The lavender scented soap was a little bit of luxury she allowed herself.
It was Mrs. Pridmore’s turn to nurse Lady Dunston, giving Ana a few moments peace to ready herself for dinner. Since Lady Dunston took to having her meals in her room, Ana usually ate with the housekeeper, but, upon Mr. Renshaw’s request, she’d been asked to dine with him that evening.
A knock sounded, and Betty entered the chamber. “Do you require a hand with dressing, miss?”
“Thank you, I am struggling with these fastenings at the back.” Ana glanced at the young girl in the mirror. “We’ll need you to serve in the dining room this evening, with no footmen to call upon.”
“Yes, of course, miss.”