Once a Duchess Online - Elizabeth Boyce Page 0,1

or heard from her friend again after Caro came to Hamhurst.

What had come was Marshall, confused and angry. He asked her over and over whether she had betrayed him. But what was the word of his wife of only months, compared to the wisdom of the woman he’d known all his life? He believed the worst, that Isabelle was the fortune-hunting, title-hungry jezebel his mother had always known her to be.

What finally came, after months of agonizing uncertainty, was the divorce.

• • •

Isabelle stood on the walk in front of the village’s little posting office, clutching the letter from her brother. Finally, her allowance. She tore it open as she started toward the mercantile where the owner would exchange a bank draft for currency. There remained no money to purchase peat for the fireplace, nor tallow candles, or Bessie’s wages — or much food, for that matter.

With fingers aching in the cold, she unfolded the letter and blinked in surprise. Instead of a bank draft tucked inside, there were only a few lines in her brother’s hand. She stopped and read the note in the middle of the walk:

Having given the matter due consideration, I find I must discontinue my financial support. While I was obligated to look after your welfare when you were unmarried, and would be again if you were widowed and destitute, I simply cannot afford to maintain you further in your present situation. My own circumstances no longer allow for such an expense, as I’m sure you understand.

A. Fairfax

Cut off. Alexander had finally done it. She’d wondered, with her pittance of an allowance coming later and later every quarter, whether this was where it was headed. She scanned the letter again, searching for any sign of filial affection. There was none. Rather, she detected anger behind his words. Her present situation could only refer to her being divorced. If he truly felt no obligation to support his divorced sister, why had it taken him nearly three years to say so?

Isabelle reversed direction and trudged back to her cottage with her brother’s letter buried in the pocket of her heavy wool coat. There was nothing remotely feminine or decorous about her outerwear, but neither was there anything refined about the bitter wind that lifted last night’s snowfall from the ground in swirling clouds that stung her eyes.

The mile-long walk would not have been so burdensome if she had money in her pocket, instead of the cruel letter. Twice she lost her footing on snow-covered ice.

“All it needs is a broken ankle to complete the Gothic tragedy,” she muttered.

She passed the rest of the trip home playing out the novel in her mind: the ill-used maiden, broken in body and heart, taken to bed with consumption. The doctor shaking his head sadly. No hope for it, he’d say, nothing more to be done. Alexander, contrite, kneeling beside her bed, clutching her hand and weeping, begging her forgiveness and promising all the peat she could burn, if only she’d recover. She would turn her fevered eyes upon him, open her mouth as if to speak, and then sigh her last. Her brother would gnash his teeth, and pull out clumps of hair in his despair, cursing himself for being such a fool.

She opened the cottage door no richer, but a little lighter in spirits.

• • •

The following Saturday, a visitor arrived to alleviate the winter doldrums. Though the cottage door opened into the front hall just off the parlor, Bessie took the unnecessary step of announcing the identity of the new arrival.

“Miss Bachman to see you, Mrs. Smith.”

Isabelle was already on her feet, flinging her needlework aside to embrace her friend.

“Lily!” she exclaimed. “Whatever are you doing here?”

Lily’s abigail sidled in behind her mistress, carrying a valise. She scrutinized her surroundings with a dismayed expression on her face.

Both women sported bright pink cheeks. “Never say you walked in this inclement weather!”

“Nothing like a bracing bit of exercise to shake off a post chaise trip,” Lily said.

She divested herself of her fashionable bonnet and cloak, revealing a fetching red traveling costume. Isabelle took the items and passed them off to Bessie.

“You must be freezing,” Isabelle said. “Can I offer you some — ”

Behind Lily, Bessie emphatically shook her head. No tea.

“That is, perhaps you would care for some coff — ”

Bessie shook her head again.

Isabelle’s face burned. Oh, this was low. She silently cursed her brother and the Duke of bloody Monthwaite, but most of all, she cursed herself for