By Jerusha Moors
Copyright @ 2016 Jerusha Moors
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system is forbidden without the written permission of the author.
The Midsummer Ball at Haddon Hill was a popular event among the local country gentry. Thomas Ratcliffe, Earl of Bakewell, hosted the ball every year, and all involved looked forward to it with great anticipation and delight. The Ratcliffe family and servants put a lot of work into making it a hospitable affair and one and all enjoyed the fuss of putting together the annual party. That is, all except Jane.
Jane was the youngest of the Ratcliffe children, called ‘the baby’ by her three older sisters and ‘the runt’ by her four older brothers. Six years separated her from her closest brother, Joseph, a strapping young man about town at this point in his life. All her siblings except for Joseph were married and raising families of their own, but they still came home to Haddon Hill from residences all over England for the Midsummer Ball.
Most years Jane did not mind the ball even if she did not exactly enjoy the actual party as it occurred. She was much too retiring and while she loved to dance, partners for her were scarce. It did distract her mother away from her ongoing task of finding a husband for Jane however and that made it worthwhile to Jane.
Her mother’s prime objective in life at this juncture was to find a spouse for her youngest child and had been ever since Jane reached the age of eighteen. No matter how often Jane pointed out that Joseph was six years older and still in need of a wife, she was ignored. Men had a much more indefinite shelf life than women in her world. As far as Jane was concerned, she was happy to be on the shelf, and she wished that her parents and older siblings would leave her alone. She was perfectly fine with being the spinster aunt to her nieces and nephews, spoiling them and having them adore her for her leniency and treats.
Jane sighed. The dancing was in full swing, the small orchestra playing country dances and reels while the crowd whirled around the floor of the small ballroom. She had danced with her brothers and a few friends of her brothers who had been coerced into squiring their sister around the dance floor. Now she was hiding in a corner and hoping her mother would not see her behind the potted palm, tucked behind the row of chaperones.
The real reason Jane was making herself particularly scarce this year was on the dance floor, currently dancing a vigorous reel with the Vicar’s elderly daughter, Mary. Charles Montgomery, Viscount Linden and the son of their neighbor, the Duke of Fenton, had decided to attend this year’s ball, much to the delight of mothers with daughters to marry off as well as the young ladies hoping for a chance to become a Duchess. Her own mother had been most unbearable about it and made no secret of her desire that Jane should renew her acquaintance with the Viscount and take advantage of her childhood friendship.
It was the first year that he had ever been present at the ball, and Jane wished that he had chosen to send a polite refusal as he usually did and not appear to ruin what little enjoyment she derived from the affair.
She and Charles had been the best of friends as children. Joseph had been sent away to school, and Jane was alone at Haddon Hill. Charles was an only child, just two years older than Jane, and quite content to have the younger girl follow him around as they found adventures and quests to perform in the woods between their two properties.
Jane played princess to his knight though she preferred it when they were Maid Marian and Robin Hood. A princess must be dignified while Marian could romp as much as Robin did. They confided in each other, two lonely children who only had each other as companions. Jane adored Charles, and he was kind to the smaller girl.
Then Charles was sent away to school.
Jane endured as best she could. She impatiently waited until Charles came home for visits and the two could resume their friendship. She saw him on vacations and holidays for the next two years when they could once again see each other every day. He would tell her about his school and the other boys who were much more boisterous than quiet Charles. They mostly ignored him, and he was fine with that for the most part.
When Charles was aged fourteen and Jane aged twelve, Charles brought a friend from school home, and the small girl from the next estate no longer seemed to interest him. There had been an incident that had broken Jane’s tender young heart.
They did not see each other again until Jane’s first season. Her older sisters were of the type called English roses, blonde hair and blue-eyed with fair complexions. They were beautiful women who found respectable and titled husbands in their first seasons. Jane was petite with brown curls that never seemed to stay pinned in place. She was shy, and while she might be an Earl’s daughter, she was still the youngest of a large brood of children, and potential suitors understood that she would not have much of a portion.
Her season was not a success.
Nor the next one, or the one after that. Jane had finally convinced her parents after the third season that she need not go to London again. Her mother clucked and fretted, then corresponded with her sisters who all offered to find a nice baron or country squire for their sister, but Jane insisted that she stay at home quietly this year. Her father took one look at her white face during an unusually uncomfortable confrontation and agreed with Jane, much to her mother’s displeasure. So, she had remained at Haddon Hill this last spring.
Regardless of the manner in which Charles had treated her, Jane had secretly kept up on any news about him. She had seen him about during her time in London. During her first season, he had approached her and asked her for a dance. Jane had politely refused, saying that her dance card was full which was a blatant lie since she was standing on the side of the dance floor at the time. Charles had first looked confused and then his cheeks reddened as he bowed and walked away. That was the only time she had talked to him except for polite greetings if they met walking in the park or at the theater.
Jane was still waiting for news of Charles’s betrothal. He was a Duke’s heir after all and while not the most handsome man of her acquaintance, he was still nice looking and most women of the Ton would overlook any perceived flaws in his appearance because of his title. He seemed a serious young man. There were no stories in the newspaper gossip columns about him as one who frequented gambling hells or seduced widows. As an only son, it was imperative that he marry and carry on the succession, so it was just a matter of time before he found a suitable woman to marry.
A familiar pang squeezed her heart and Jane absently rubbed at her chest, an unladylike action that if her mother saw, would bring a reprimand. Perhaps once Charles selected a bride, Jane would be able to look more kindly on the country squires that seemed to be her fate. The tiny bit of hope that she and Charles could become friends again would be gone forever. Or perhaps she would never marry, but grow old as the maiden aunt, living on at Haddon Hill or passed about to live among the families of her brothers and sisters.
“Lady Jane, are you available for the next dance?” Jane looked up from her musings, startled to find the object of them standing right in front of her. Charles had a determined look on his face and held his hand out stiffly as if brooking no objections from her. She had no choice, so she bit her lip and nodded, then rose and took his hand. Charles led her to where a set for a country dance was forming. She curtsied, and he bowed as the dance began.
Jane was flustered, but she soon fell into the familiar rhythm of the dance. She was thankful that the steps precluded any conversation, and she mostly kept her eyes on the floor. The few times she looked up, Charles was gazing at her intently. A frisson of excitement ran down her spine, but she knew better. Charles had made his opinion of her very clear long ago.
Jane was excited. Charles had come home from school the day before and finally, finally she would see him again. The long days of waiting were over. She ran through the woods to the glade where they had so often played. She had a present for him in her pocket, and she could not wait to see his reaction to her surprise.
Her older sisters were noted needlewomen, but their mother despaired of Jane. She had labored for hours over a scrap of linen, twice tearing out the stitches. Even now the ‘M’ was slightly crooked. But she had embroidered the handkerchief for Charles herself, not letting her mother help at all.
She reached the clearing, but he was not here yet. She felt an attack of nerves hit as she pulled the brown-paper covered package out of her pocket. Perhaps it would be better to leave it for him on the stump of the old oak tree that they often used for their play. Charles would see it there. She could hide behind some bushes and see his surprised reaction when he found her gift. She laid the package carefully on the stump and crawled under the bushes nearby. The branches caught at her hair, and Jane was sure that she had dirtied her dress, but it would be worth the scolding that she would receive from her governess.
Jane had almost fallen asleep, lulled by the warmth of the summer day when there was loud whooping, and Charles appeared. She almost giggled at him from nerves and relief, but then another boy appeared, blonde and taller than Charles. She watched as they ran around the clearing until the new boy spotted her gift.
“What’s this?” He picked it up and tossed it casually into the air. Charles’s ears turned red, and he looked uneasy.
“Open it up and see,” he said. “Perhaps the fairies left a gift for you, Rafe.”
Jane almost crawled out to retrieve her gift. It was for Charles, not this other arrogant boy, but he had already ripped the paper off of her parcel. He waved the handkerchief out like a white flag while Charles silently watched.
“Look, it has initials on it. ‘CJM,’ why, I believe the fairies left this for you, Montgomery. Those are your initials after all. Or do you meet a lady here who trades you gifts for her kisses?” The boy leered, and Jane felt her stomach roll over, as when she had eaten too many comfits and felt sick.
Charles laughed, a mean sound in a high, reedy voice. “It’s the little neighbor girl,” he scoffed. “She fancies me, I think, but I want nothing to do with her. She’s a pest.”
“Why not kiss the neighbor girl?” Rafe said grinning and Jane wanted to hit him. It was not like that between her and Charles. “Isn’t she pretty?”
Jane held her breath. Suddenly it was vitally important to know if Charles thought she was pretty.
“No, she’s a tiny dark-haired girl, not at all the thing. Her older sisters are quite comely, but I’m afraid that she will never have their looks.” Charles grabbed the handkerchief from Rafe and tossed it in the air where the breeze caught it and carried it away. “Come on. Perhaps Father will allow us to take a boat out on the pond. Let’s go see.”
Rafe laughed. “Or we could see if the wench in the village pub is interested in trading some kisses for coins.”
Charles looked sick, not at all interested in kisses, but he turned and followed his new friend out of the woods.
Jane had run home, sobbing hysterically. Later she had gone back to the clearing, but she could not find the handkerchief. Just as well, she thought. The wind must have taken it or an animal had dragged it away.
She had not talked to Charles again for many years and made sure that she ignored him politely whenever he approached her at church or in the village.
The dance ended, and Jane curtsied to Charles’s bow. He took her arm to lead her to the side of the room again.
“Lady Jane, would you like some punch?” he asked with a smile. Jane shook her head. She was not smiling, but she did not feel upset either. He was the old Charles, the one who she had first known. And something more. His manner confused her.
“No, thank you, my lord. I am quite content as I am.” Her hands were balled into fists, hidden by the folds of her dress as she tried to stop their trembling. Jane wanted to get away from Charles now and find a place to hide. He had done the polite thing, stood up with the ugly neighbor girl, and now she just wanted to be left alone.
“Jane…” he said, and she jerked her face up, startled by the informal address. Charles grimaced. “No, not here,” he muttered and gave a sharp bow, then walked away, leaving her to face questions and sly innuendo from her mother and sisters.
Jane was up at her usual time the morning after the Midsummer Ball. She sat in the morning parlor with her mother, sisters, and sisters-in-law as they reviewed the events of the ball, gossiping over the ladies’ dresses and the behavior of the men. Their menfolk were all out for an early morning ride, attempting to clear their heads after the night of dancing and cards. Jane was quiet, working on her needlework and nodding when appropriate. Her family was used to her silence.
She had come a long way from her first tentative stitches. Jane was now the finest needlewoman in her family and her handiwork decorated much of the fine linens for their bed chambers, undergarments, and even her brothers’ waistcoats.
The women all paused when the door opened and Simms, their butler, walked into the room. He looked at Jane’s mother and announced, “Viscount Linden to see you.”
There was a stunned silence, and then Lady Bakewell blinked her eyes. “Please allow him to enter, Simms. And order a tray from the kitchen. He might like some refreshment.” Every woman in the room turned and stared at Jane with curiosity and interest.
Jane blushed as Charles entered the room, resplendent in his morning clothes despite it being too early in the day for such a call. He bowed to the ladies, but his eyes immediately went to Jane sitting in her corner. He politely greeted them all, addressing her mother first. The ladies were much flustered but pleased and curious to have a gentleman call so early on the day after the ball. There were many sly glances from them between Charles and Jane.
Charles cut through their chatter rather abruptly. He was a polite man, but he could assume the arrogance of a ducal heir when necessary. “I was hoping that I could persuade Lady Jane to take a walk with me in your gardens. The day is fine, and the exercise would be enjoyable.”
Every head in the room swiveled towards Jane. She swallowed hard but immediately rose from her seat, happy to get away from all their eyes on her even if she was confused by Charles’s attention.
“Jane dear, send for a bonnet and a shawl. There is a slight breeze this morning.” Her mother addressed her, and Jane murmured her assent.
She and Charles waited in the hallway while a maid went up to her room to fetch her things. Charles did not speak, and Jane’s mind was in too much of a whirl. Still, when he held out his arm to take hers, she felt the tingle of his touch much as she had last night when they were dancing. He led her around the corner of the house towards the gardens. Jane would not look at the window of the morning parlor for fear that the faces of her family was glued to the window and would embarrass her further.
Charles! She stole a glance at him as he walked quite slowly and deliberately down the path between the flowers. Her mother’s gardens were extensive and famed for the layout and the color of the plantings. Lady Bakewell had a rose arbor that was the envy of half of England. Charles headed directly for it. He chanced a glance towards the house, but Jane was conscious that they had passed beyond the sight of anyone looking out at the gardens. It was not strictly permissible for a young lady to be alone with a gentleman like this, but her mother was not that far away. Indeed, she could hear the gardeners talking as they worked on nearby beds.
Jane slowly let out a deep breath. She was barely touching Charles’s arm, but she could feel the heat of his body as he walked next to her. A clean sandalwood scent tickled her nostrils, one that Jane remembered from their dance last evening. She knew her pulse was beating wildly, but she had no means to slow the rhythm. Whatever did Charles want with her?
They had reached the rose arbor, and he stopped before a stone bench, indicating that he wanted her to seat herself. Jane settled herself, clenching her hands together in her lap in a most unladylike way. Charles was definitely working himself up to something. He looked down at her with a scowl as if she had done something to displease him which was ridiculous when she had barely spoken to him for several years.
Charles looked away and then took a few steps to a bush blooming with deep-red roses. He pulled a penknife out of his pocket and cut a beautiful blossom, lush and dark with color, then turned to Jane.
“For you, my lady.” He held it out for her to take.
Jane was bewildered, but she took the rose only to cry out and drop it as a thorn drove into her finger. Charles rushed forward and sat next to her, taking her hand gently in his.
“Jane! I am so, so sorry. What a clod I am! I should have removed the thorns before handing it to you.”
She slowly opened her hand to see a few drops of blood dripping from the wound into the palm of her hand. Charles reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief to bind her injury.
“Let me take you back to the house so that it might be tended.” Charles was babbling, but Jane had stilled, the hurt forgotten as she stared at the pristine linen of the cloth around her hand. She reached with her left hand and traced the crooked ‘M’ on the cloth.
“Jane, are you all right? I was trying to be romantic, but I’m a hopeless case.” Charles’s face was white, and he looked as if he might pick her up and carry her bodily to the house.
Jane smiled, suddenly calm and utterly certain of him. “It’s only a pinprick. It will be fine.”
Charles huffed out a sigh and slumped on the bench.
“You kept the handkerchief.”
“What?” Two red spots appeared on Charles’s cheeks, and he looked at her with uncertainty. “Of course, I kept it. You made it for me.”
Jane looked down again and blinked tears from her eyes, but the handkerchief was still the same. Except it now had a dark red stain from her blood.
“Oh, I’ve marred it.”
“Perhaps the laundress can remove the stain,” Charles said fiercely. “It doesn’t matter because I will keep it. It would make it that much more precious to me.”
Jane’s eyes widened. “How did you get it? I went back, but I could not find it.”
Charles closed his eyes as if in pain. Then he looked at her and took her left hand. “I was afraid that you were hiding there that day. That was the only reason I could think of so that your change of attitude made sense.”
Jane nodded her head in agreement. “I heard everything.”
“I was a silly boy, trying to find his way among other boys who were quite different from me. Rafe was the leader of our class, and I wanted him to like me, but I soon realized that he was not a nice person. I was only showing off for him when I found your package, and I certainly never meant to hurt you. It was a foolish jape from a young idiot of a boy.”
A pain near her heart that Jane had carried for years eased. “I came back after to see if I could recover the handkerchief. I was going to burn it.”
“I came back almost immediately with some excuse and retrieved it.” Charles smiled tenderly. “I carry it with me always.”
“Why would you do such a thing?” Jane’s heart was beating very fast, and she looked down at the linen wrapped around her hand. It was such a poor scrap of a thing.
Charles placed a finger under her chin and gently pushed her face back up until she was forced to look at him. “Don’t you know, dearest Jane? I fell in love with you many years ago, and my regard has never faltered. I only hope that you will allow me to court you in hopes of changing your opinion of me for the better.”
He gazed into her eyes, and Jane could see the anxiety he was trying to hide. It gave her a sudden burst of confidence. This young man who could have any bride he chose, who was the heir to a Duke, wanted to court her. And he loved her.
She leaned forward and quite shockingly touched his lips with her own. It was her first kiss, and she was not quite sure how to proceed, but Charles recovered quickly and molded his lips to hers. He pulled his head back and gave her a warm look, then framed her face with his hands and leaned forward to kiss her again. This time, the kiss was much deeper, and they were both panting when they pulled apart.
“Perhaps it should be a short courtship,” Charles said with a wry grin.
Jane smiled and placed her hand, still wrapped in the handkerchief, over Charles’s heart.
“I have always loved you, too.”
Jane sat dry-eyed as her children and neighbors gathered around her in the front parlor of Fenton Hall. Alec, her oldest sat beside her. She supposed that she would need to begin calling him “Your Grace.” He was now the Duke of Fenton, and she was the Dowager Duchess. How strange after all these years to think of herself as the Dowager. Charles would be so amused by her new title.
She blinked. How odd this was! Would she continue to attempt to converse with Charles for the rest of her life? It did not seem possible that her dearest husband would not wake with her tomorrow morning. She shook her head, and the movement attracted Alec’s attention.
“Mama, are you all right?” he asked in a worried tone. She knew the children were concerned about her. From the time they had married, she and Charles had never been apart. She had nearly birthed Isabella in the ducal carriage on the way to London because she would not stay behind when Charles had to take his seat in the House of Lords. Charles had been uncharacteristically angry and so frightened for her. She was stubborn about it, though, and Isabella had been born in the warm confines of Fenton House once they arrived in London.
Jane drew her attention back to the troubled countenance of her eldest. “I’m fine, Alec. I just need to check on something.”
“Mama,” he started to speak but paused as she arose from the chair. He also stood and took her arm. Jane was fragile, and it felt right to rely on Alec’s sturdy arm. Geoffrey also rose and came to her other side.
No one looked up as the three passed one more time to the next room. In truth, Jane had made this trip several times already, but she had to be sure. The room was heavily swathed in black hangings, and a polished elm coffin with brass furnishings sat on a table in the middle of the room. Candles lit the room, but it was still gloomy. Jane sighed. Charles would hate this. He loved light and laughter, not sadness.
She motioned to the lid and Alec grimaced, but he did as his mother asked. Geoffrey stood at the foot, and they carefully lifted the lid off the coffin one more time.
She gazed once more at the beloved features of her husband. Charles looked peaceful lying on the padded velvet, but lonely. She reached into the inside pocket of his coat and drew out the faded scrap of linen one last time. The spot from her blood had never really come out, and she traced the crooked ‘M’ with the finger that still had a small scar left from the prick of a rose thorn. Jane carefully placed the handkerchief back in the place where Charles had always kept it, next to his heart.
And there it would stay forever.
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Jerusha Moors grew up in Connecticut but currently lives in Portland, Maine. Her sister introduced her to the books of Georgette Heyer and she never outgrew her love of romance books, especially from the Regency period. She hopes you enjoy her stories and books about those times and will follow her on social media. And please leave a review.
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Always – Richard and Anne’s story (short story)
Abandon – Aubrey and Lucy’s story
Advantage – Jamie and Eleanor’s story