About the book
“My heart shall be your shelter and my arms your home…”
Lady Priscilla Frasier is not your average Marquess’ daughter. And while becoming a physician is an impossible dream, saving lives is her passion. Until she is forced to marry London’s most eligible bachelor.
Maximus Astor is probably England’s most hated physician. And killing his own mother is his biggest crime. Now returned from his self-exile, he is determined not to leave without reconciling with his family. A task that proves rather difficult when he finds himself falling in love with his brother’s betrothed.
With all doors slammed in Maximus’ face, and the whole of London looking for a missing Priscilla, the hangman’s noose tightens around their necks. A hangman with a familiar face and keeper of a bloody secret that Maximus’ mother took with her to the grave.
Maximus Astor rushed along the road toward the Royal Mail coach that was just setting into motion. His portmanteau felt heavier than upon embarking on the ferry in Calais and banged against his leg as he ran.
“Halt the coach, please. Halt!”
The coachman turned around and shook his head just as Maximus arrived at the stop, panting and dropping his bag on the ground beside him.
“Can’t take another, and we are behind schedule as is. Take the next one.”
“When is the next coach, good sir?”
The coachman frowned as though he were suspicious of Maximus' polite manner. “Why, tomorrow. Royal Mail coach only goes once a day.”
“Can’t you make an exception? I’ve money to pay. Please. I see there is room inside the coach.”
The man atop the carriage shook his head. “We only take four and there’s four already. Horses can carry only so many. Take your money and find an inn for the night and try the next one tomorrow. Might want to buy a ticket in advance. A popular route, this is.”
Maximus sighed. He did not want to spend a night in Dover. His bones were weary from the travel. He’d spent months on a boat returning to Europe and then days in a coach to Calais. Now that he was back on English soil for the first time in years, he was eager to finish his travels and get back home.
Home. What a strange notion it is to think that I am returning home after all these years.
Of course, arriving at home and being able to stay there was a whole other issue. He had not let his father or brothers know he was on his way and he wasn’t sure how he would be welcomed, if at all. Another reason for wanting to press on at once. He didn’t think he’d be able to sleep with the uncertainty of his reception hanging over his head.
Alas, there wasn’t anything he could do about it. The coachman seemed resolved to leave him behind.
“Very well. I thank you and bid you farewell.” He picked up his portmanteau and was about to make his way into the town center to find an inn when a voice called out from within the coach.
“Mr. Astor? It is Mister Astor, is it not?” He turned at the sound of his name and saw an older lady’s head poke out the side of the carriage. He frowned and shielded his amber-colored eyes against the sun which was high in the sky.
“It is,” he waved although unsure who the woman was. To his surprise, the carriage door opened and the woman stepped out. She was older; her hair was white and partially covered by a pale-blue bonnet, tied under her chin. It matched the redingote she was wearing.
“It is I, Mrs. Marigold Pelford, from Penang.” His eyes widened when he recognized her.
“Mrs. Pelford, of course!” He rushed toward her and bowed, kissing her hand. “I am sorry I did not recognize you at once.”
She waved her arm dismissively.” Do not be silly. It has been near five years since we parted company and I looked quite a bit different then.” She patted her hips. “All the delicious Malayan kuih have left their mark,” she laughed her familiar throaty laugh which at once drew stares from the passersby.
Instantly, Maximus felt at ease around the kindly older woman. He’d first encountered Mrs. Pelford on the voyage to Penang in the spring of 1810. He’d just completed his studies in medicine and embarked on his journey around the world. Mrs. Pelford had journeyed to Malacca with her husband, a well-known spice merchant, to take up residence in Penang. The poor lady and her husband had suffered terribly with seasickness and he’d tended to them, acquiring their loyal friendship in the process.
He’d called on them frequently during his three months’ stay on the island, and had been sad to bid them farewell when the time came to move on to China. Mrs. Pelford had vigilantly kept up their correspondence over the years. Alas, the last letters were exchanged some years ago now.
“I did not know you had returned to England, Mrs. Pelford,” he said. “I sent a note when I heard Malacca was to be turned back over to the Dutch but heard nothing back.”
She planted her hands on her hips and shook her head. “My dear boy, we left Penang nearly two years ago, I would not have received any letters sent there. In any case, I wrote to you. Several times, in fact, but your landlady returned the last letter with a note to tell me you’d gone to Spain to join in the war. The war! I thought you were dead. Dead, I declare.” Before he could explain himself further, the coachman jumped off the front seat and approached them, winding his finger in the air to indicate the passage of time.
“What is the hold up? I have a timetable to keep.” The man motioned to the coach. The Royal Mail guard was already seated in the back, his sole purpose being to guard the letters contained in the box in the back. He glared at them through narrowed eyes and shook his head at the delay.
Mrs. Pelford waved at him dismissively and turned her attention back to Maximus. “Have you just landed?”
He nodded, “From France within the hour. I did not know I had to reserve a ticket ahead of time. In any case, I would not have had time to do so anyhow, given how I just stepped off the ferry.”
“Going to your family’s home? Your estate is in Reading, if memory serves.”
He smiled and gave her a nod. “It is, indeed. My father usually resides there most of the year. You may recall, my family also owns a townhouse in Hampstead, where my brothers often spend their time. I imagine I will be calling there soon too.”
“Hampstead? How lovely. And so near to where I live. Our house is in Golders Green, a hop and a skip from Hampstead Heath. And how fortunate for you to have your country estate so close to the city. I always imagine what a hassle it must be for the peers who’s estates are located so far away.”
How lovely it is to see a familiar face. Even though this country is my home, it feels more foreign to me than China, India, or any other place.
She gave him a curt nod and turned to the driver. “There is a seat on the front, beside you. I am sure you can have one of the passengers move beside you so we may transport my friend here.”
The coachman was about to shake his head when she stuck her hand into her reticule and retrieved several coins which she thrust at him. After peeking at the amount, the man nodded at Maximus.
“Very well. You can ride up front with me.”
He was about to thank him when Mrs. Pelford spoke up once more.
“That won’t do. He will ride in the coach with me. I will not have you take away my entertainment for the journey. Have the young boy ride with you. He is quite the gabster, and will keep you well entertained.”
With a grunt, the coachman made his way back to the coach, tossed Maximus’ bag onto the top, and then exchanged words with a passenger inside. A moment later, a young man, no more than seven-and-ten stormed out, glared at the two of them, and climbed atop the front seat.
“There seems to be room for one more after all.” Mrs. Pelford grinned and motioned for him to follow her.
Maximus made his way into the carriage and found himself faced with the two additional passengers, both of whom glared at him. The woman, dressed in a fine-looking gown that was much too thin for this late March weather, rumpled her nose as he entered. He swallowed, well aware that his state of dress was not up to par for travel, even in a Royal Mail coach. He only owned two outfits and one was in terrible need of repair. The pantaloons, plain white shirt, and Pomodoro-green waistcoat he was presently wearing had been on his body for the better part of a week and smelled accordingly. His hair had grown past his shoulders and was in need of a wash, as was his beard.
“Good day,” he said to her and her companion as he took his seat.
The man beside her, an older gentleman with an amusing mustache, shook his head.
“It’s nearly good evening, more like. Time is a wasting and we were to depart ten minutes ago.” He had his gaze fixed on Maximus, even though he had nothing at all do to with the delay.
“Please, it is just past two in the afternoon. And what are ten minutes?” Mrs. Pelford said. The man was about to reply but she had no more time for him. Instead, she turned to Maximus just as the coach set in motion.
“Where did you come from, my dear? I know you went to Spain to fight alongside our forces. That is the last I heard, however.”
He nodded. “I did not go to fight, only to offer my medical service… however, after the battles, I went back east. I was in India for the past two years. I just returned from there.”
She clapped her hands together. “India. Of course, you went to India. You must have been to every corner of the world by now.”
He smiled and gave her a nod. “Not quite, not quite. But what of you? When did you return here? Two years you said? And how is Mr. Pelford? I trust he is well?”
She gave a deep sigh. “I am afraid he’s not. He wasn’t long for this world, which is why we left Penang and returned here. He wanted to be closer to our children. In truth, he wanted me to be near our children so I’d be looked after when he passed. What a hoot.” She let out a laugh that startled their travel companions who glared at them.
Maximus had deducted from their conversation that they had to be husband and wife. The boy who’d been so unceremoniously relegated to the less desirable seat next to the driver was their son.
“I am dreadfully sorry to hear. I liked Mr. Pelford very much.”
She nodded, “And he you, my dear. He would have so liked to see you again. To tell the truth, you were much more of a son to him than our own, bless his heart.” She shook her head. “It’s why I am in Dover. Our son has seen fit to open a business of his own. Only he is lacking in his father’s sense of business and now his windmill has dwindled to a nutshell. I’ve had to come and bail him out once more. For the last time, I will say.”
“He is lucky to have you as a mother. As are your daughters.”
Maximus smiled at her. He remembered the lively stories she and her husband would always tell of their five children, all of them misfits if they were to be believed. They were a colorful couple full of energy and delightful company. It pained him to think of him gone, for Mr. Pelford was always more of a father figure than his own father, the Duke of Wilson, ever had.
“I should say,” she replied, digging in her reticule and retrieving a small box. “They certainly don’t think so. But what of you? How is your family? Do they know you are coming?”
Maximus swallowed and shook his head. He hadn’t dared write to his father to alert him to his impending arrival. He wasn’t sure if he’d be welcome, to tell the truth. He had a strained relationship with both his father and his brother Robert, who was now a Captain in His Majesty’s Royal Navy. He only occasionally exchanged letters with his oldest brother, Augustus but even that only sporadically.
Mrs. Pelford’s eyes widened. “Well, I don’t know that I approve of that. A surprise visit after all these years?” She paused and eyed him, taking in his appearance. “They might not recognize you.”
He blinked at her. She’d always been a blunt woman, one of the qualities he liked best about her. “I know I do not look my best, but you still recognized me after all this time.”
She laughed again, earning a glare from their travel companions. Presently, the couple was busy unpacking their food. At the sight of the sweet pieces of bread and cheese, his mouth watered and his stomach rumbled. Unconcerned with the judgment cast upon her, his friend shook her head.
“It was your lovely portmanteau I recognized, not you. I have admired it since we first were on the ship together. It has such lovely designs and I recognized it at once when you were standing outside the coach. I hesitated to call to you right away because you look not like yourself at all. However, it was the way you walked, with that distinct swing in your step that convinced me at last that it was you.”
He nodded, aware he did not look like the clean-shaven, well-put-together young man she’d first gotten to know. Throughout his long journey, he’d been more concerned with arriving home and how he’d be received than with his appearance. He told her as much. Alas, she was not satisfied with the answer.
“That won’t do. Now, why don’t you get off the coach with me in London? You can stay with me for the night, clean up, and press on in the morrow. I will even find one of William’s shirts and waistcoats that will fit you. And no need to fret. It would all be quite proper. I’ve had our house in London converted to flats that I’m renting out to bright young men such as yourself. I could have you stay in one of those.”
He shook his head much to her dismay. “I would rather not. To tell the truth, I’m afraid I will lose all of my courage if I do not go on to Reading tonight. You might find me aboard a ship back to China if I stop to rest.”
It was, in fact, quite a miracle he had made it this far. He’d fought the strong desire to abandon his plans to see his family and instead step on another ship the moment he’d arrived in Europe. But he knew he had to make peace with his family before it was too late. If the continent and England could find peace surely so could he and his family.
It was that, the peace that had, at last, descended upon the continent that had inspired him to return home.
Mrs. Pelford was about to protest when suddenly the man across from them threw his handkerchief up into the air.
“Now that is most unusual,” his friend commented, but then gasped. “Faith! He seems unwell.”
“He’s choking! Choking, he is!” the man’s wife screamed at the top of her lungs.
“I am a physician, please hold still!” Maximus shouted as he got up and attempted to wrap his arms around the man in order to dislodge whatever was stuck in his throat. To his dismay, the man slapped his hand away and shook his head.
“He doesn’t want you touching him, you dirty scrub! You’re no physician!” the wife shouted near hysteria.
“You silly wench. Stop raising a breeze. He is a true physician. Let him help your husband or would you rather he dies in this coach?”
The man grunted, wrapping his hands around his throat while his wife slapped his back in a manic manner.
The coach slowed down and then stopped as the coachman halted the horses. The moment the vehicle had slowed the man who was beginning to turn blue jumped from his seat, pushed open the door, and rushed out into the bright morning sun.
Maximus jumped out after him. He rushed out after him and caught up with him just as he stopped and collapsed on the ground. Maximus turned him over and saw with horror that the man’s eyes were open and his hands had fallen to his sides. Had he waited too long? Again?
Priscilla Frasier looked at her friend expectantly and held her breath as Margaret swallowed.
“Faith, Cilla. You are staring me down, what is it? Have I got a smudge on my face?” At once Margaret whipped her face to remove any perceived imperfection. Priscilla grinned at her.
“You are the picture of elegance as always, Maggie. Now, how do you like your tea?”
At once her friend frowned and tilted her head to the side. “Why? What is in it?” She picked up her cup and swirled it around while eyeing it suspiciously. “It looked perfectly fine, and it tasted delicious.” Placing it down she looked at Priscilla again. “What have you done to it?”
Priscilla leaned back, pleased to hear her concoction was well received. She rubbed her hands together. “I mixed the elderberry root into the tea. It helps ward off colds and sinusitis.” She tapped her nose. “I noticed you’ve been a bit nasal lately.”
This did not find the desired reaction, for her friend sat up straight and crossed her arms. ”I am most certainly not nasal. And I would much appreciate it if you did not serve me medicinal things without telling me first. You know very well what happened the last time you fed me betel nut and told me it was delicacy from the Far East, only for me to be unusually… euphoric.”
Priscilla grinned then. “It is a delicacy in much of the Far East. And I could not have known that it would have such an effect on you. You were rather Friday-faced when Lord Hampton would not dance with you at the Almack’s and I thought it would cheer you. Which it did, I might add.”
Margaret shook her head. “It was dreadful. I could not stop myself from giggling. It was ever so unladylike. “Upon my word, if anyone had seen me—”
Priscilla waved her arm dismissively. “Nobody saw it. In any case, I was only trying to help, and the merchant who sold it to me said it would help with melancholy.”
Her friend shook her head and took another cautious sip of her elderberry tea. “I will admit, this tea is wonderful. You are talented with your herbs. Although I beg you to cease using me for your experimentations.”
Priscilla sighed. “I would never coax you to ingest anything that might harm you, you know that! A good physician never would harm their patient.”
Margaret tilted her head to one side and blinked at her friend. “You are such a curious creature, my friend. I never met any lady who is as interested in science and biology as you are. It seems rather a shame you can never be a physician since you are a woman. But perhaps when you are wed, your husband will allow you to pursue your interests as an herbalist.”
Priscilla shook her head at the notion. ”I wish I would not have to wed at all. I have no interest in being a wife or a mother. I just want to go to train to be a physician. I wish I could go to Guy’s.”
It had long been her dream to be admitted to the prestigious medical school outside of London. Her fascination with science and medicine was not new, of course. It began when she watched her governess dress the wound of an injured lady they encountered in the park. She’d used a handkerchief to attend to the wound and Priscilla still remembered watching with fascination. Her interest had only grown from there and to this day, she spent every free moment reading books on herbs and medicines.
Alas, her dream of becoming a physician, a surgeon, or even an apothecary, would never become a reality. Women were not permitted to take up such apprenticeships, let alone go to medical school.
“Guy’s. Oh la, all the eligible men one could meet there,” Margaret’s voice drew her out of her thoughts.
“Faith, Maggie, that is all you think about. Meeting a man.”
Her friend shrugged and smoothed down her pretty pale-pink gown. It was of fine Italian crape over white sarsnet. The sleeves had an elegant border made up of beads and interspersed with golden pearls. She had attached a brooch made of pearls to the front as well as hoop earrings. Her hair was piled on top of her head and a few small curls hung onto her face. She was done up very nicely, considering all they were doing was having tea in Priscilla’s home. They were not even planning to walk the promenade later. However, Priscilla had an idea just why her friend was dressed in such a fancy manner.
“He is here, by the way,” she said with a smile. Her friend looked up at once and suppressed a grin.
“Whoever are you speaking of?”
“You know very well. Augustus Astor, Lord Hampton. He is meeting with my father again. And I did notice how you’ve kept a keen eye on my father’s study door.”
“Gracious alive! I hadn’t even thought of him. How dare you suggest otherwise?” She announced in fake outrage. ”However, now that you mention it, he has been spending a lot of time here, it seems. I wonder what he has to discuss with your father that takes up so much time.”
Priscilla suppressed a grin. She knew very well that her friend utterly moon eyed over Lord Hampton although the young Earl hadn’t paid her much attention.
“His father has been so unwell for so long that he’s been forced to all but assume his father’s duties. If it were allowed, I’m sure his father would send him to the House of Lords in his stead as well. Father is trying to assist him as best he can. And anyhow, their country estate is in Reading, same as ours. So it’s only natural.”
Maggie sighed. “I wish my father’s estate were in the same county so he might have occasion to converse with him also. Although I imagine that he wouldn’t go near my father unless he had to, even if they were neighbors. Just as he will never ask me to dance because of our poor reputation.”
Her friend’s bright-blue eyes darkened at this harsh reminder of their reality. Priscilla reached out and squeezed her hand before loading her plate with more sweetmeats. “Here, have some marzipan, or barley-sugar candy. I swear there’s nothing funny whatsoever in either.”
Her friend shook her head. “I must not. Mother always says since I do not have the reputation or the wealth, I have to rely on my looks and too many sweets ruin my complexion. It’s just awful—”
“I am sorry, Maggie. It is not fair that you should be punished for the conduct of your parents.”
“Our peers frown upon divorce, no matter how long ago.” Maggie shrugged and shook her head. “It is so very unfair that I must pay for the actions of my parents.”
“I know, it isn’t right. Maybe with time, they will forget.”
Priscilla felt bad for her friend. It was true, due to her parents’ divorce Maggie was all but an outcast. The only reason she was invited to balls or any social events at all was by the strength of her connection to Priscilla and her family.
“I am already three-and-twenty and I have yet to be courted. I haven’t the time to wait for society to forget about my parents’ divorce. Faith, if only my father was a Duke or even a Marquess. If only we were rich—”
Priscilla knew her friend was right. Any of these factors would have helped her get past the stain of her parents’ divorce. However, her father was a mere Viscount and the family could not even afford to rent a home in London for the Season. Maggie was presently residing at her uncle’s home in Mayfair.
It is a shame that her parent’s misfortune has so ruined her future. She is such a delight to be around, such a joy, and has a true and kind heart. Any lord would be fortunate to court her. And yet, Lord Hampton will hardly look at her.
Priscilla narrowed her eyes. Perhaps she could persuade him to take some time to speak with her friend, and dance with her at least once. If he were in her company even just for a little while he’d surely see her virtues and overlook the family circus which was truly no fault of hers.
Just then, her father’s study door opened. She could tell by the way it squeaked whenever it was opened or shut. No matter what the servants did to it, the problem could not be remedied. Footsteps sounded then and a moment later, her father and Lord Hampton exited.
“Isn’t he just breathtaking? A swell of the first stare,” Maggie gushed at once. She was not wrong. Lord Hampton was an exceedingly handsome man. His blond hair hung just over his broad shoulders and his blue eyes sparkled when you were close enough to look into them. Maggie insisted that they looked rather like a warm ocean, not that Priscilla had noticed it.
He had a dramatic sense of dress, influenced no doubt by Beau Brummell for the two were known to keep company at times. Of late, Lord Hampton had taken to wearing pale suede buckskins, although today he wore more understated beige pantaloons, tied at mid-calf. She could appreciate that he was pretty as a picture, but she did not see in him what her friend did.
She nodded her head and was about to turn her attention back to her tea when her father stopped and motioned for Lord Hampton to follow him into the drawing room.
“Lady Priscilla, how are you today?” Lord Hampton asked as he approached. She rose and curtsied before him, extending her hand for him to take.
“Very well. It is good to see you again, my Lord.” Suddenly, an idea flashed in her mind and she turned to Maggie. “I trust you have met my dear friend, Miss Margaret Charmant.” The bright smile he’d been flashing disappeared for a split second but then re-appeared, albeit somewhat strained.
“Ah yes, Miss Margaret. I am familiar with your father, Lord Dixon.” The beaming smile on her friend’s face fell at the mere mention and the spark all but disappeared from her eyes.
“You are?” she said with a voice that almost trembled. It was always like this, sooner or later her familial circumstance was revealed and Maggie found herself unfairly cast in an unfavorable light.
I cannot allow it to happen again. Not with this one. She is entirely too smitten with him.
“You met Miss Margaret previously I believe, at the Almack’s. Although you missed the opportunity to dance with her, for she is the most divine of dancers,” Priscilla said, nodding for emphasis. Lord Hampton turned to her and she noticed the frown lines around his eyes. He was years older than her, two-and-thirty, if she remembered correctly, and she wondered sometimes why he had not yet taken a wife.
“I recall the occasion, yes. It is when you and I danced the cotillion. The very highlight of my evening, if I dare say so,” he flashed a bright smile at her but Priscilla could not return it, as she spotted her friend’s face fall entirely from the corner of her eye. This was not going the way she had hoped at all. “I trust I will see you tomorrow night? At Lord Carmichael’s ball?” he asked.
Priscilla nodded. She was not looking forward to the dinner or the ball as she found events such as these boring. However, she knew she would not get out of it since the ball was held in honor of her cousin, Elizabeth, who was, at last, coming out into society.
“Delightful. I shall see you there,” he bowed to her and then acknowledged Margaret with the slightest of nods before turning and walking out of the room, followed by her father.
“Maggie, I am ever so sorry. I tried to—” She raised her hand and shook her head.
“I know what you tried to do and I much appreciate it. Alas, it is as I suspected. He knows who my father is and thus I shall not stand a chance to attract his attention. Not in a positive way at least.” She blinked the tears away. “In any case, it would not matter even if I were the daughter of the Regent himself. Lord Hampton’s eyes are all on you.”
“No, never—” She found herself interrupted by an earth-shattering scream which came up the servant staircase.
A moment later, hurried footsteps came up the servant staircase and Mrs. Lester, their housekeeper, stood before them. She had loyally served the family for many years but only taken the position of housekeeper the previous year, after the retirement of her predecessor. Mrs. Lester was a small, slender woman with dark hair that was always kept in a tight bun at the back of her head. Her uniform was plain and a chain of keys always dangled from her hip over a crisp white apron. She was always impeccably put together, the picture of a perfect housekeeper. Today, however, was different.
The moment Priscilla laid eyes on the housekeeper, she froze, clasping her hands in front of her mouth to stifle a scream. Mrs. Lester’s apron was covered in blood.
“There’s been an accident downstairs. One of the maids… I tried to stop the bleeding but there was so much—” She grew pale as she glanced at her blood-stained apron. At once, her eyes rolled to the back of her head, her legs buckled and she fell to the ground.
“Are you absolutely certain you would not rather spend the night at one of my flats and then press on in the morning? It is getting late and you have had a vexing day.” Mrs. Pelford’s face was marked with concern as they stood outside the Royal Mail coach which was unloading.
He shook his head. “You are very kind, but I must press on to my family’s home. I fear if I do not, I will lose all resolve to go and will settle in your flats permanently,” he winked at her with a smile and she returned it with delight.
“I would be so pleased if you would. Now, if you simply must press on, at least take this.” She retrieved a calling card with her address from her reticule and pressed it into his hand. “Promise you won’t be a stranger. Come and call on me, and soon. I’ve so enjoyed our conversation.”
He placed the calling card in the pocket of his waistcoat and gave her a nod. “I promise.” It was not mere politeness either, he’d very much enjoyed her company as well. It reminded him of those first joyous days of his journey.
She extended her hand to him then and he kissed it before assisting her into her own carriage which had arrived to meet them at the Royal Mail coach’s final destination. He had also enjoyed her company and he would certainly see her again once he’d finished what he’d come here to do. He watched her carriage drive away into the distance toward her home in Westminster and then turned to the coachman.
“Where could I hire a hackney to Reading?”
The coachman looked up. “At this hour?” He shrugged and then rubbed his chin. “It’ll be a bit of a walk to get to the nearest hackney station. Why don’t you get back inside and I’ll take you?”
Maximus frowned at this. “Do you not have to meet your timetable?”
The coachman waved his hand dismissively. “I only go between Dover and London. And I live in Barnet so Reading is only a little out of the way. Besides, you all but saved Mr. Grover’s life and received nothing in thanks for it, so a ride is the least I can offer you. Now, get in before I change my mind again.”
Maximus gave him a nod of thanks and made his way back into the coach which set to moving again within minutes. It was true. After fearing the man a lost cause he’d managed to dislodge the piece of bread after all. With some effort, he’d managed to eject it out of him. It had flown directly into his wife’s face who’d dissolved into a crying fit. The entire incident left Maximus with grass stains on his pantaloons and sweat running down his back. He’d received no thanks at all from the couple who’d reluctantly returned to the coach and departed at Bromley without so much as looking him in the eye.
Between the stop to save Mr. Grover’s life and the multiple scheduled stops, the time had passed rather quickly. Evening was falling outside now and he enjoyed the quiet of the now-empty coach. He looked out of the window with amazement at the changes London had undergone in just a few short years. Where once there had been grassland buildings now stood impressive townhouses, homes to the richest and most important people in the country.
Once they exited the city center the coachman took the road north, avoiding the rookeries Maximus knew to be in that particular area. In the distance, he saw St. Giles in the Field, the landmark for one of the most notorious rookeries around.
How long it has been and yet it seems as though no time at all has passed. It will not be long now before I am back at my family’s estate.
He sighed and leaned back, letting the landscape pass him by. On occasion, he glanced outside and saw the cityscape make room for the fields and farms of the rural outskirts of town. Yes, soon he would be home. The thought churned his stomach with anticipation.
“This is as far as I go, I’m afraid. Gates are locked, but you can make your way ‘round.” The coachman’s voice pulled him out of his thoughts when they arrived a little while later.
“Thank you again, you are very kind,” Maximus said as he took his portmanteau.
“No trouble.” The man then nodded toward the mansion which was visible in the distance. “They expecting you at this hour?” Maximus shook his head. “Not at this hour or any hour.”
Without further conversation, he made his way through the small gate on the side and walked up the gravel walkway, the pebbles crunching beneath his feet.
His stomach continued to churn at the sight of the grand home. The manor was one of the largest estates in the south of England. The manor house had once been home to King Charles I during the war that had broken out in 1642, something his father never ceased to talk about with pride. The house was surrounded by a large garden. Now that it was spring, flowers bloomed and the lake which lay behind the house would be surrounded by beautiful cherry trees.
He remembered going for walks there when he was a young boy. The solitude it had given him was something he’d always remembered. He was surprised at how little the estate had changed. The garden looked just as it had when he left six years ago and the house appeared unchanged.
There was a light in the window on the second floor while the rest of the upper floors were mostly dark.
This is father’s study, is it not? Yes, I seem to recall his study looked out over the walkway toward the house. And beyond his, was Augustus’ chamber.
He hoped his eldest brother would be here. The two, while not especially close, had enjoyed a more cordial relationship over the years. Augustus on occasion sent a missive with the latest news of the family. The last such communication had arrived at Maximus’ home in India some two years prior. There hadn’t been anything since. Then again, he’d departed from the Punjab region shortly thereafter and hadn’t settled anywhere properly since.
It felt strange, approaching his own home and feeling like a stranger. But then again, he was a stranger. A stranger to this country and a stranger to the family. While beautiful and full of memories, it did not feel like home at all.
He paused at the steps and straightened his greatcoat before ascending the stairs. With a beating heart, he knocked on the door and waited for the face of the family’s butler, Mr. Thorpe, to appear. However, when the door was flung open, it wasn’t the kindly old man that appeared. In his place was a burly looking man with a scowl upon his face. He looked Maximus up and down and then tilted his head to one side.
“His lordship doesn’t give charity to strangers that call upon him at his home. See the vicar at the parish; he’s bound to help you.”
He was about to shut the door in Maximus’ face when he stepped forward and inserted his foot between the door and the frame.
“I must apologize for my appearance. I assure you that I am no beggar. This is my home. I am Maximus Astor. His lordship is my father. Is Mr. Thorpe not here? He will vouch for me.”
The man before him frowned and shook his head. “Thorpe? He’s been dead and buried going on three years now. If you were truly a member of the family, I’d imagine you’d know that. I am Burrows, the butler. I know of no Maximus Astor.”
Maximus’ mouth hung open at this revelation. Thorpe dead? Why had Augustus not mentioned this in his letters? Then he remembered. Augustus and Robert did not care for the servants as Maximus did. They did not need to. They found their companionship and their company among each other. Maximus could not help but rely on the servants for conversation and acceptance.
“Well, Mr. Burrows. Could you alert Lord Hampton or Lord Astor or His Grace that I am here? They will surely tell you that I am indeed a member of the family. Or perhaps Mrs. Fairchild?”
Mrs. Fairchild was the family housekeeper, another of the people who’d given Maximus the warmth and comfort he’d never found among his family. Burrows shook his head.
“Mrs. Fairchild retired to Devon last year. Now, if you please,” he waved his hand at Maximus the way one might wave away a bothersome fly.
This cannot happen. I cannot simply be sent away by some butler who has taken it upon himself to decide who’s fit to see my own family.
“I will not leave. This is my home and I expect to see my father. I—” At that moment, a door opened inside the house and to his relief, he saw the figure of his father stumble out of the drawing room. He looked old. Older than he’d remembered. His hair had gone entirely grey and there were patches on his head where there was no hair left at all.
“Father!” he called out, waving at the man as he turned. Momentarily, Maximus found himself taken aback by his father’s appearance. He looked disheveled. His waistcoat was unbuttoned and he noticed that his pantaloons were wet from where something had spilled. The drink in his hand perhaps, for he was holding a cup filled with a brown liquid, cognac no doubt, at a precarious angle.
“It is I, Maximus. Your son. I’ve just arrived back from overseas.”
The older man eyed him for a moment, stepping from one foot to the other. Then he scratched himself behind the ear and shook his head. “Burrows, who is this man?”
His words came out in a slurred manner and Maximus’ heart sank. His father had always been prone to drinking too much. He’d start indulging in wine and cognac before even sundown. At times, he would even drink ale – a drink of the lower class. And he’d do so in quantities which were alarming. It seemed this had not changed at all.
I cannot believe I forgot his habit. Of course, he would be in this state. It is evening, after all.
“Just a pauper, my Lord. Looking for a handout, no doubt.”
His father chuckled. “Another? We get three a day it seems.” He took a swig from his glass, spilling some over his hand as he did. The liquid dripped on the floor in front of him.
“It is me, Father. Maximus. Please, is Augustus here? Or Robert?”
“Maximus?” For a brief moment, hope rose inside him for it seemed his father recalled him after all. There was a glimmer of recognition in his eyes but then it vanished. “I have no son by that name. I only have two sons and they are not here. They’ve gone to stay with their friend to prepare for a ball. A ball in honor of—” He stopped and looked as though he’d forgotten what he was going to say. Then he shrugged. “It matters not. Burrows, have this person removed from my sight and at once.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Burrows turned to Maximus and pointed his index finger. “You heard. Go. You’re not wanted here.”
This could not be. No. He would not allow this to happen. This was his home after all, and this man, his father. He took a step forward but found himself held back by the butler.
“Father, when you are sober once more you will regret sending me away. You know it. I know it. Please, allow me to spend the night so we may converse in the morning when you are in better spirits.”
To his shock, his father came charging at him, the glass with what remained of his drink held high in the air. He swayed and some of the liquid spilled over the edge of the glass.
“I am in perfect spirits. How dare you suggest otherwise? You paupers have a nerve. Coming on my estate in such a state. Making claims, and demanding your needs be met. Who are you to claim to be of my family? You are no son of mine. Get! Get! Burrows, have this vermin removed at once before I get my bow and arrow and chase it down the street!” He threw the glass to the ground in front of Maximus with such force it shattered into tiny pieces.
Maximus jumped back, horrified at this turn of events. “Father… please—” His father turned and stumbled away, making his way up the stairs while Burrows grabbed him by the arm.
“Thomas!” At once, a footman rushed over and Maximus found himself grabbed by the other arm and dragged down the stairs. With force, the two men shoved him and he found himself tumbling down the stairs. At the bottom, he was chucked forward with such determination that he lost his footing and found himself face first on the ground. A moment later, his suitcase was thrown at him. It landed in the dirt beside him.
“Now, get out of here and do not dare return. His lordship is quite serious. He will chase you out with his bow and arrow and enjoy doing it.” Burrows sneered at him and then spat onto the ground beside Maximus before turning around and marching back inside. “Make sure he scrambles, Thomas,” he instructed the young man.
The footman, Thomas, stood for a moment and looked down at Maximus. He could not be more than seven-and-ten but he peered down at him in curiosity. He studied Maximus’ face and then glanced at his luggage, then back at him.
Maximus turned around, propped himself up on his elbows, and shook his head. “I will go. Please, just let me catch my breath for a moment. I will go. I promise.”
There was nothing else he could do. His own father either did not recognize him or simply did not want him. Perhaps he was too drunk to remember he even had a third son. Regardless, he would not spend the night here. He’d have to find a place to rest and to clean himself. For now, in addition to the sweat and dirt from the past week, his clothing was drenched in the remnants of his father’s cognac.
“It is really you, isn’t it, Mr. Astor?” He looked up, shocked at the young man’s statement. “You don’t look like an Astor. But it’s you, isn’t it? You have his portmanteau, in any case.”
Maximus pushed himself up and glanced down at his suitcase. The family crest was displayed on it and his initials were as well. He nodded. “I am Maximus Astor. Do you remember me?”
The boy nodded. “Mrs. Fairchild is my aunt. She got me employment here as a stable boy the year before you left. I grew terribly sick and you helped me when you were home from Guy’s Hospital. Gave me a tonic and tea. I’ve never forgotten.” He paused and then repeated. “You don’t look much like yourself, except for around the eyes.”
Then he extended his hand and helped pull Maximus up. “I remember. Your aunt thought you were not long for this world. I am glad to see you well, Thomas.”
They two stood across from one another awkwardly when the front door opened and Burrows looked out again. “Thomas! Why is he still here?”
“Do not fret, I will leave,” Maximus assured the young boy whose gentle face was marred with uncertainty. “I’m going,” he called out to Burrows and then took his suitcase.
“I am sorry, Mr. Astor,” the boy said, regret evident in his tone.
Maximus nodded and turned. “I thank you for your words. It is nice at least someone remembers me.” He squeezed the boy’s shoulder and went to leave when he called after him.
“It’s the coming-out ball of Lord Carmichael’s daughter.”
Maximus looked back with a frown on his forehead.
“The ball Lord Hampton and Lord Astor will attend tomorrow. They’ve gone into town to take in a play at the theater with the young lady’s brother tonight. They generally stay the night at the house in Hampstead. In any case, there is a ball being hosted by the Duchess of Wryth. You can find them there tomorrow. If they will let you in.”
“Thank you,” Maximus said and the boy gave him a curt nod before rushing back toward the house. With his portmanteau in hand, Maximus made his way back down the graveled walkway. There was nowhere to go now except back to London, to the one place he knew he would be welcomed without question. Sighing heavily, he left behind the house that had never truly been his home at all.
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