“I’ll write you the moment I arrive.” Isabella promised her mother as she held her tight in her arms. “And everyday afterwards.”
Her mother’s reply was so tattered with tears it couldn’t be understood, but Isabella knew it from her heart.
“I love you too.”
She turned away, not able to take another second of her mother’s heartbreak. If she was going to get on this boat, it best be now.
“I don’t blame you for being upset, sweetheart, but it’s for the best.” Simon Hawkins took Isabella by the shoulders, as he could still hear his wife sobbing softly behind him. “He will take great care of you. You’ll want for nothing, I promise.”
“I wanted for nothing here.” Her voice squeaked out, fighting tears and a resentful anger that was building inside.
“You’ll see, Belle. Soon, I’ll be receiving nothing but wonderful correspondences about how much you love England. It just takes time. You’re doing a wonderful thing for me…”
The rest of his words went right past her as Isabella blanched, unable to look her father in the eyes a second longer. If she did, she was sure she might do something rash, like strike him.
“Just so you know, Father.” She began, shrugging off his hands, her voice turning firmer and ice cold. “What I do now is for Mother, not you. I do this so she doesn’t have to give up the simple things she’s enjoyed. She deserves every penny of this money simply because of what she’s had to endure with your sticky fingers and overzealous greed but instead, it has to go to cover your tracks, yet again.”
“I didn’t raise you to speak to me this way.” Simon gasped. How did she know about the other times? Helen must have told her.
A slow smile crept over her face as she replied, “Yes, you did raise me to speak to you this way. Goodbye, Father.”
Then she turned to the tall, pale complexioned man who was holding her luggage on the dock and said softly, “Let’s go.”
She never looked back.
“Miss…Miss?” Louis’ voice slowly crept into Isabella’s sleepy haze, causing her eyes to slowly open. The fog lifted and she was once again aware of being in a moving carriage.
“Miss Hawkins?” Dùghall’s much stronger voice almost made her jump.
“Yes, Mister Godard?”
“Oh, Miss please, call me Dùghall. Sorry to disturb you from your rest, but we are almost at Haven Manor.”
She sat up straight as an arrow. My God, how long had she slept, anyway? She asked herself, observing the open book in her lap, still on page four where she’d left it less than a mile after leaving the shore. The small candle Louis had set up for her to read by, burned down to nothing but a pool of soft wax.
“If you look out your window, you will see it coming shortly on the horizon.” Louis prompted.
That she could do.
Pulling back the dark curtain and blinking against the bright sunlight, careful not to get her cumbersome gown too bunched up in the process, she looked out with curious fascination.
Everything was green, lush and bright, patches still wet from where the sun had not directly dried the morning dew. She was sure she’d never seen so much green concentrated in one place in her life. She was also sure her mouth was gaping at the sight of it. What wasn’t green was speckled with bright reds and yellows of the wild flowers that grew, running along the dirt road and disappearing into the skyline.
The same skyline that held the faintest glimpse of a house. No, it was not a house, not the type of simple, three room structures that she’d seen growing up. This was a tall, gray, almost castle-like mansion, which looked to be hundreds of years old. Even the largest plantation style homes she’d visited in Massachusetts didn’t equal this. No, they definitely did not have these in America.
“Is that it?” she asked up to Dùghall as she hung almost half her body out to get a better view as they approached. She ducked to avoid the wispy branches that hung lower to the road, but squealed as one caught her cheek.
He smiled down at her, amused, “Oh, no, Miss,” he answered, “that is Waverly, home of Lord and Lady Sutton.”
“And who are they?”
“Lord Sutton is Lord Erik’s business partner. Both of them are the pillar of English society around here. You will be meeting them soon enough, I would assume.”
“I see. Then where is…” she started to ask as the carriage passed the ivy covered gate of Waverly. Before she could continue, she turned her head and Louis pointed.
“There is Haven.”
A breath left her throat, for as they came over the small hill, there it stood, like a tall dark statue reaching up to the sky. Not as castle-like as Waverly, but it was definitely much larger and a bit more modern-looking in its design. The house was made of stone that was so smooth she wondered if it was marble and half of it was covered with the same type of ivy she saw on the Waverly gate. A cobblestone road ran from the gate in a circle all the way around the front of the home and in the center of it was a large sculpted angel with water flowing heavily from a pitcher in her delicate hands.
The carriage stopped just short of the tall, wrought iron gate and Dùghall climbed out to open it, allowing Isabella to get an even better view of the entire grounds. She expected the land to be just as flat as what she’d already traversed, but on closer inspection, she could see that there were gently sloping hills that led to a rather large lake, or even could be a small river that ran along the back of the estate.
For the first time since her arrival in England, she felt that perhaps she could call this home.
She half expected to see a passel of female servants suddenly run out of the house, dressed in dark clothing and starched white aprons, clamoring to get a good look at the new woman that would be living there. But, as the carriage pulled up and stopped, it was strangely silent, other than the sound of Louis and Dùghall talking to themselves as they exited the carriage.
Dùghall opened the door first. “Welcome to Haven.” Holding out his hand, he helped her out and kept hold of her arm so she could regain herself on tired, unsteady legs.
“I suppose it’s from the long ride.” She laughed softly.
“Yes, Miss, and from the long journey overseas, you will be fine once you rest.” He assured her as Louis gathered her bags.
“Wait here, I shall show Miss Hawkins into the house, then take me to Lord Erik’s office, he wishes to be informed of her arrival.” Louis told Dùghall, taking Isabella’s arm and walking her to the door, helping keep hold of her long gown. Then he turned to her as he opened the door. “You are expected, so you will be met inside and shown around shortly. I apologize for not showing you in personally, but I am to report to Lord Erik’s office and I am already late.”
She walked inside and saw the foyer, which was much larger than any she’d ever seen before. Everything was in a very natural colored, highly polished wood, including the long staircase, which wound along the wall, upward to the highest point, which she assumed was a third floor, but it appeared less sunlit than the others and far less decorated. And hanging down from it was a very large brass chandelier, lit brightly with at least two dozen candles. Briefly, she wondered if Lord Erik had a servant just to light them on a daily basis.
“I will take my leave of you now.” Louis took her hand and kissed it respectfully, the first time he’d ever done something so formal since they’d met. He sat her bags down on the foyer floor as Isabella turned to look at a display of very delicate vases that hung along the wall to the left of what appeared to be a large dining room.
“Oh, these are lovely.” She said softly, then pointed, “Is this the dining room?”
She turned and found herself alone.
“Louis?” she called out again, a bit louder.
The sound of horse hooves on the cobblestone drive.
She ran for the door and threw it open just in time to see the carriage heading for the gate, growing smaller and smaller.
She gave a snort as she closed the door. Well, someone would be down soon. But until then, she was alone. Finally, truly alone.
And despite her will do keep herself calm, reality set in and her hands began to shake.
As the sun began to grow lower in the sky toward the late afternoon, Jarrod, Erik’s personal butler, walked out of the house upon hearing the carriage arrive. He was exhausted after spending the day helping Lillian, the young servant selected to be Isabella’s personal maid, set up her new bedroom at the end of the second floor. Yet, he was curious to meet the new Lady of Haven Manor. Although when she didn’t exit the carriage with Lord Erik, he became concerned.
“Good afternoon, my Lord.” He said to him as he held the door for him to walk inside.
“Good afternoon, Jarrod.” Erik, weary in mind and body from a day long trifling over his new business merger, stopped in the foyer and handed over his valise. All he truly wanted to do was have a brandy and retire, but other matters pressed. “Has Miss Hawkins settled in? If she has, bring her to my library so I may speak with her.”
Jarrod turned pale. “Um…my Lord, I thought Miss Hawkins was with you.”
Erik turned sharply, noting the pallor of his butler’s aged face, “Why on earth would you think that? I never said I was meeting her anywhere but here.”
“Because, my Lord…well...” he paused much too long, trying to put together just how to approach it.
“She…Miss Hawkins… is not here, at least to my knowledge.”
Erik’s eyebrows raised. “Not here?” Oh sweet Lord, had she run away already? “Louis told me he had brought her to the door and left her right here in the foyer. He told her someone would be waiting to greet her…” he pointed to a small corner, “See, there…that must be her luggage.”
Jarrod turned even paler, if that was possible. How did he not see those bags before?
“Why was there no one waiting, watching for the carriage?” Erik’s voice rose when Jarrod gave no immediate reply.
“I do not know, my Lord, truly I do not! I had been working all day with Lillian on Miss Hawkins’ room. Mary Ellen was the one who was to meet her.”
“Did you not tell her to look for her arrival today?”
“I did, my Lord. When Miss Hawkins was not brought to me for introduction, I assumed, now erroneously, that she must have been taken to meet you at your office instead.”
“Unacceptable, Jarrod.” Erik’s voice dropped in tone and rose even more in volume. “You are in charge of the staff; anything that goes wrong is on your head. Find Miss Hawkins immediately and bring her to the library. I will talk of reprimands later.”
All Jarrod could do was bow his head in shame and dismiss himself quickly to find Miss Hawkins, thankful that Lord Erik didn’t lose his temper anymore than he already had.
Ever since the odd arrangement with the American, the staff had noticed a change in their master. An eerie change.
And that in itself struck fear in them all. Which is why Jarrod was not surprised that the staff didn’t come out to meet Miss Hawkins. What was it about this woman that would cause such a change in their usually quiet, even-tempered master?
Two hours passed exhaustingly slow and Isabella found herself sitting under a large apple tree, fanning herself against the warm afternoon as birds flew past and landed in the grass. She leaned forward and called to them and smiled as they came toward her ever so cautiously.
They were merely satisfying their curiosity at the new visitor on their land.
And apparently they were the only ones who did.
One of the servants will take care of you…. Louis had said.
If there were servants, after nearly a half hour of standing in the foyer, calling in futility did nothing to summon them. She knew they were there, however. She could hear shuffling, see small shadows pass, hear tiny, faint whispers. Although she didn’t understand why, it became perfectly clear that her presence at Haven Manor was completely unwelcome.
Nice. So be it. She wasn’t going to force anyone to meet her.
That’s how she found herself outside.
If anything could take away the obvious annoyance of being left to wonder a strange estate alone, it could be the sheer beauty of it. On closer inspection, it was easy for Isabella to see that the large body of water that she’d first spotted, even from as far away as the gate, was just that, a simple, but vast lake. Wide much more than it was deep, the water looked clear as glass and felt cool and refreshing over her hands. The sound of it softly rushing past told her that she would be spending many a day here.
Or moreso if no one came for her.
As she sat under the tree, she began to think even more about her future husband, the stranger she was sent to marry to save her family from her father’s greed. What of him? Where was he? Did even he not care that she sat alone, waiting, wondering, worrying?
“Hello!” A voice could finally be heard, echoing through the deep valley. At first, Isabella thought she was hearing things. But within another minute, the voice grew louder, louder and more anxious.
“Over here!” she called out, then waited.
Finally, she stood up and while dusting off her gown, she heard it.
“I said, over here!” she yelled in response, waving her arms.
Only then did the gray haired man come towards her. On closer inspection, she could see he was dressed in a dark uniform.
Well, there appeared to be someone willing to meet her. He didn’t seem the type of hide in the shadows.
“Miss Hawkins, I presume?” Jarrod asked as he tried to catch his breath from running full sprint from the house. Luckily, Mary Ellen knew where she was. It made his job a bit easier. He took a second to gaze at the woman who would be the new Lady of Haven Manor. Although a bit rosy cheeked, no doubt from the warm sun, she seemed nice enough.
“Yes.” Isabella answered, biting her tongue. She didn’t wish to unleash her venom on him just yet, not until she knew if he was responsible for her being abandoned. Plus, he was staring at her and she wished he would stop.
He bowed deeply at the waist, “My deepest, most sincere apologies, Miss, I beg your forgiveness. I was unaware you had arrived. I was tending to duties in another part of the house. Had I known, I assure you I would have come to you immediately to welcome you….” He drifted off when he saw Isabella’s expression had not changed.
“How can you not know someone is in the foyer of a home, uh…uh…”
“Jarrod, I am Lord Erik’s personal butler, Miss.”
“Jarrod. I called and called from the foyer, I was on the lower floor for a half hour before I came out here.”
“Again, I am so terribly sorry for this, Miss. As I am an older man, my hearing is not as good as could be. I promise you, had I heard you, I would have come. Such negligence will not happen in the future.”
She looked at the gentlemen, and could sense his remorse. His face furrowed in his embarrassment and she could see deep lines around his mouth. Perhaps, in hindsight, she could have yelled louder, but she didn’t want to appear obnoxious. Proper English ladies didn’t raise their voices, right?
“I suppose nothing is to be done of it now.” She sighed. “At least you did come, not like the others.”
She pointed toward a small side house that sat a good hundred yards from the main one. “There. Two women kept looking at me while I was walking around earlier, but when I turned around, they disappeared.”
“Oh…Mary Ellen and Teresa.” Jarrod sighed. “Do not be concerned with them, Miss. Everyone was a bit apprehensive at your arrival. They have never met an American lady. They are simply curious.”
“We’re no different than English ladies, I would assume. Perhaps just the way we speak is all.”
“Of course not, Miss.”
“If they’d bothered to come and meet me, they would have found that out themselves.”
No argument, no nothing. She was left just staring at him.
With a cough, Jarrod finally said, “Perhaps you would like to go inside now, Miss? Lord Erik has arrived and asked for you.”
Finally, she thought. With a nod, Jarrod took her arm and began to escort her.
Silence fell as Isabella could sense Jarrod’s tension and anxiousness to get her inside quickly, though she wasn’t sure why. Perhaps he’d already been punished. She’d hoped not, not on her behalf.
More silence and another glance as they passed the side house.
The eyes again.
Isabella grinned broadly and the eyes disappeared.
That’ll teach them to snoop, she laughed softly to herself.
“Was your journey here comfortable, Miss?” Jarrod asked.
“Relatively so, albeit rather boring, of course, but I filled my time reading and speaking with the other passengers.” She answered as they entered the house and started down the long, main hallway that ran under the staircase. “Have you ever traveled by boat, Jarrod?”
“I have never traveled anywhere, by boat or otherwise, Miss Hawkins. I daresay, you are indeed braver than I.”
“Nowhere?” she asked, stopping at the end of the hallway where a very tall set of exquisitely carved wood doors sat.
She watched as Jarrod took a moment to straighten his clothing before he knocked. And although he didn’t instruct her to do so, she thought it best to remain silent to let him handle the introduction. Especially as she found she’d suddenly grown a bit nervous.
“Yes?” A deep, male voice rang out from inside. It flowed like water, yet the tone was sharp as a knife.
“My Lord, Miss Hawkins to see you.” Jarrod said without opening the door.
“Come in, Miss Hawkins.”
Only then did Jarrod push the doors open to reveal a large, open aired library to Isabella’s view. The floors were of a much darker wood than the rest of the house and matched the beams that loomed overhead as well as the mantle of the fireplace that was so large, it took almost one end of a wall to itself. Shelves of books covered the remaining walls from floor to ceiling and with the exception of one nice sized, leather chaise lounge close to the window, there was no furniture in the room besides one very large, ornate wood desk that was straight ahead of the door, along the same wall as the fireplace. The whole room looked comfortable and inviting.
The man that rose from the desk, however, was a different story.
Her eyes gazed over him from head to toe, just as she’d done with Dùghall earlier that day. But this time, she knew this was the right man. Her father had, without a doubt, been accurate in his physical description, almost too accurate. The mask was there. But to her surprise, it was not as outwardly striking as she had envisioned it would be. It was pale, opaque in color and sat close to his face, almost molded so firmly to the skin that it could almost be a second skin. Yet, she couldn’t help but stare at it, not in fear, but in fascination. What was he hiding behind it?
Erik found her intense study of his mask rather disconcerting and in defense, he turned away and returned to a position behind his desk. He tapped his fingers rhythmically against the top of it.
“Good afternoon.” She spoke curtly, a tad embarrassed at her gawking, but still fairly annoyed by the fact that she had been left to wander an unfamiliar estate alone for so long. And she planned on telling him that fact, but...
“I understand that you had been left unescorted for some time now.” He spoke before she could, “For that, I do apologize, but my staff was understandably shy. I shall reprimand them accordingly for their neglectfulness.”
“No, that isn’t necessary. Their behavior was understandable, unlike yours, however.” She began, knowing that such a scolding her first day there wouldn’t make things any easier. “I was actually more annoyed at your absence.”
“My absence, Miss Hawkins?” Erik’s eyebrows raised.
“Yes, not only that you didn’t take the courtesy to meet me at the boat, but that you weren’t around here when I expected you to be.” There, she said it. Such a fine Englishman, surely he would take exception to someone impugning his character.
“I was rather busy today. If you would care to sit, we can get on with the discussion of the business at hand.” He spoke, seemingly unphased by what she’d said, gesturing for her to sit down in the chair in front of his desk.
Well, that went over nicely.
As she sat and could take in the whole picture of the man, the first thing she noticed about him, after the mask, was his hair. It was as dark as the wings of a blackbird and just a shiny. He didn’t keep it slicked back as Louis’, but let it fall loose, full and thick but with just a couple of small strands falling across his forehead.
“I assume you were treated well by my assistant on your journey?” he asked her as he sat and leaned forward.
“Yes. Appropriate at all times?”
And his eyes. They were not blue, nor brown, no green, nor hazel, but something in between. An almost amber color, yet she was sure that color truly didn’t exist in anything except a late afternoon sunset. Those were eyes, she said to herself, that could very well cause a grown woman to fall to her knees and weep if they were weak enough to do so.
But she’d never be that weak.
“He was always an utmost gentleman.”
And then there was his accent. It was far too smooth, deep in tone and fluid sounding to be English. No, it had to be French. She’d remembered French from spending a couple of days with a French couple on their way to settle in Boston. She recalled fondly how much she was intrigued by the way they spoke, the lilt of their voices, how they could tend to drift off into their native tongue when they became tired or animated.
So apparently, Lord Renault was actually French. She liked that.
Unfortunately, it was the only thing she liked about him, so far.
Erik almost lost himself momentarily by the sight of the woman that had walked into his library and spoken to him with such fortitude. Simon Hawkins hadn’t lied when he said his daughter was lovely, but even then, his description lacked appropriate merit. He found her light colored hair quite nice when, at the angle she sat, it caught just a touch of the remaining sunlight. Her eyes were blue, deep blue like sapphires. Although he did have to admit, she was not terribly endearing at first glance because of the scowl she wore. His fault, of course. But all in all, she was certainly not what he expected.
He coughed at the sudden calm and soon, regaining his composure, he reminded himself that she was not there to be courted. Her one and only job was to produce him heirs. Nothing else would stand in the way.
Certainly not love.
But at least he’ll enjoy looking at her, nonetheless.
“I am to assume you were explained the full nature of why you were summoned here?”
“Why I was sold? Yes, to some degree.”
He chose to ignore the sold comment, “Very well. I shall sum up again what will be expected. First, we will marry within the next day or so. Priest only, no ceremony, here at my home as not to attract attention. Second, to those around us, with the exception of my business partner, no one will know of this deception. In public, you will play the dutiful, happy wife. Here, you may do what you wish.”
“What about your servants, do they know why I’m here, exactly?”
He nodded, “They were told. They know the penalty for not keeping the secret.”
Her eyebrows raised. What penalty? She was sure only to ask that to herself.
“The home and grounds are at your disposal. I can assure you, you will not lack for things to do. You are welcome to borrow any book from my library, or make use of the stables and go for a ride. I do assume you ride?”
She nodded, although in truth, she had not ridden in years, but in her shock at his long soliloquy, she couldn’t bring herself to say it.
“Fine. As for meals, I eat my breakfast in the dining room most days. I do not eat at home during lunch as I am working and, occasionally, I take my dinner here at home, depending on when I find the time. You are, of course at those times, welcome to join me, if not, you can dine where you see fit. The cook has been instructed to fix you anything you wish.”
Again, she nodded.
“As for the staff.”
She smirked, “Yes, the mysterious shadows…well, except for Dùghall, of course.”
Erik stopped cold, his jaw clinching tight.
“Who instructed you to call him Dùghall?”
She sat up straight at his sudden, odd tone. “He did.”
“No one calls him Dùghall, except for myself. Everyone else calls him Mister Godard. And even as my wife, you will always refer to him as Mister Godard, no matter what he wishes you to call him otherwise. He is available to help saddle a horse or drive you where you wish to go. Other than that, you will not socialize with him. I hope that is clear.”
She nodded. Hell, she would have agreed that the sky was green then to risk seeing how he would have reacted if she’d balked him.
“As for the rest of the staff.” He began once more, more like he was instructing an employee than talking to his future wife, “They are yours and will follow your orders as they would me. If they do not, I am expected to be informed immediately. Their quarters, except for Lillian’s, are on the southern end of the estate, you are not to go there without my prior knowledge, is that understood?”
He leaned forward, “But?”
“Who is Lillian?”
He ran his hand through his hair in thought and in doing so, his hand bumped the mask. It didn’t move an inch and Isabella was convinced it was sewn to his face. She bit her lip to contain a building laugh. But if anything, the moment of tension served to calm Erik down and his demeanor softened.
“I had forgotten that the staff was not introduced to you. Lillian is one of the two housemaids and she will be of personal service to you as her room is located on the other end of the first floor.” Then he called out, “Jarrod!”
Jarrod immediately opened the door and bowed, “Yes, my Lord?”
“Bring the staff for Miss Hawkins to meet, have them assembled in the foyer.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
When Jarrod exited, Isabella spoke up again, “Excuse me, Lord Renault?”
“Erik. I think it might be appropriate to call me by that name from now on, for practice sake.”
“Perhaps yes, Erik.”
“Do you have a question?”
“Yes, I am curious. Did my father inform you….well…that my last name is not Hawkins? At least not anymore?”
With a smirk, Erik leaned even closer, his voice dropping. “Yes, I am aware you are a widow, but for the sake of those who might inquire, you are a maid, or were until we were married. Many among my circle met your father, so it was assumed you, as his unmarried daughter, were still Hawkins. When he spoke of you, he did not mention to anyone else but myself that you were widowed. Most would not find marrying a widow appropriate. It will be frowned upon as it is that you are American.”
She chose not to ask why. Not because she was afraid to ask, but she was more afraid of the answer. Besides, too many other things were swirling around in her mind.
“Was that your only concern?”
“No, actually not. I was wondering about... well, our sleeping arrangements. Quite frankly, am I to assume we are to consummate this marriage?”
He allowed himself the slightest smirk. She was bold and not afraid to let her feelings be known. Very good.
“Not immediately, no. For now, your bedroom is located on the second floor, the far end. It has a nice view of the garden. Of course, I will want heirs, but until such time, I will not require we share the same bed.”
She let out a very noticeable breath.
He raised an eyebrow, “Would that be such a terrible notion?”
She gasped, her hand moving to cover her mouth, “No, I’m terribly sorry, it’s just that… we barely know one another and…”
He raised his hand, “Do not apologize. I do not love you anymore than you love me. This is a business arrangement, pure and simple. It would be a pleasant notion if we became friendly with one another, able to share a good conversation or a fine meal together, but it is up to you. Right now, I am simply quieting those who believe I will never marry or have children.”
“That is all?” she asked.
He nodded. “I have a thriving and successful business in London. Your duty here is to produce heirs for me. Raise them to be good men, to take over that business when the time comes. For this, you shall live in comfort for the rest of your life and your family in America will lack for nothing.”
Isabella blinked, then swallowed hard. Well, that summed it up. “I would say that was rather succinct.”
“I am a blunt man, Miss Hawkins. I do not hold my tongue when it suits me.”
“Perhaps you should refer to me as Isabella. For practice sake.” She managed a smile, hoping he would answer with his own.
“Yes, perhaps, Isabella.” He replied with a less stern face than before.
A knock, then, “Lord Erik?”
“My lord, the staff is assembled.”