Wild Online - Margo Maguire

Chapter 1

Richmond, England

Late spring, 1829

It was not like Grace Hawthorne to waste time woolgathering when she had work to do, yet she found herself doing just that as she sat at Lady Sophia Sutton’s desk in the library of Fairford Park, gazing out at the back gardens. The estate was just west of London, and vast by the standards of the city, with acres of trees and gardens, yet close enough to enjoy London’s attractions.

Grace took pleasure in the peace and security she’d found at Fairford, living with Lady Sutton, easing the loneliness of the elderly countess’s life. Heaven knew that Lady Sutton had done the same for Grace, not to mention having given Grace a home and employment when she had nowhere else to go.

Her Ladyship was occupied at the moment, visiting with several of her dowager friends, so Grace decided to take a walk in the bright sunshine of the late May day. Her stroll would take her past Fairford’s massive, ancient trees and beds of deep purple phlox, colorful nasturtiums, sweet william, and dahlias. Being out of doors among the flowers reminded Grace of her mother, whom she’d lost a year ago.

Heavens, had it been only a year? Grace mused. It seemed she had missed her mother for ages, yet at the same time, it was almost as though Grace had just bathed that dear lady’s brow and tucked her blanket round her frail shoulders for the last time.

Grace turned away from the window just as the library door squeaked open, and Faraday, the butler, entered and handed a letter to her. It was soiled and discolored, as though it had been thrown into a busy street and left for days before being delivered. “This just arrived, miss.”

Grace took the missive and saw that it was addressed to the Dowager Countess Sutton, her employer.

“It’s come a long distance,” said Faraday. “She’ll want it straight away.”

The butler cleared his throat as Grace turned the letter over and saw that it had come from Africa.

Africa. Oh dear. By the look of it, the letter had taken many detours before making its way to Richmond.

Wasting no more time, Grace turned to the desk and quickly slit open the seal with Her Ladyship’s penknife. As was entirely proper, Grace did not unfold the letter, but left the library and went directly to Lady Sutton’s parlor.

She placed her hand on the door latch, only to pause when she heard the sounds of quiet laughter within. Many of Lady Sutton’s friends gathered there each Wednesday, to visit and to gossip.

She glanced at the watch pinned to her bodice. Soon the ladies would take a short walk through the garden, for the weather was fine, and then they would leave.

Grace looked down at the letter in her hand. It could be good news, or the very worst. Lady Sutton’s grandson, who’d been lost in Africa more than twenty years before, might have been found.

Or the more likely case, someone had discovered the boy’s remains.

Pressing the letter to her breast, Grace decided to wait. Whatever the news, it would not be something the countess would wish to share with the ladies, at least not yet. Far better for Grace to wait and give Her Ladyship the privacy she would need to digest the contents of the missive.

Grace returned to the library and tried to concentrate on the correspondence she should be handling for Lady Sutton. But that battered letter drew her eyes more times than she cared to admit.

Poor Lady Sutton. It was well-known that she harbored a most unrealistic belief that her grandson had survived being swept away from his father’s hunting party somewhere in deepest Africa. The earl had returned grief-stricken after spending many months searching for his son…or the boy’s body. Yet Anthony had never been found. No one believed the earl’s son could have survived being swept into a deep, rushing river in the midst of a torrential rainstorm, yet his grandmother had never given up hope.

Grace eyed the dreaded letter, certain it could not possibly contain good news. She considered tossing it into the fireplace and eliminating all traces of it in order to protect Lady Sutton from renewing her terrible grief. But that would be entirely irregular. It was not up to Grace to decide which correspondence the countess ought to see. Besides, it might be well for Lady Sutton to be able to close the book on Anthony here and now. To finally accept that her grandson was truly