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Miss Millie's Groom

MISS MILLIE’S GROOM

By Catherine E. Chapman

 

 

Published by Catherine E. Chapman at Shakespir

 

Copyright 2017 Catherine E. Chapman

 

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

Also by the author

 

All the Trimmings

Braggot Park

Brizecombe Hall

Clifton

Collected Romances

Danburgh Castle

Elizabeth Clansham

High Sea

Kitty

Opening Night

Rhiannon

The Beacon Singer

The Family Tree

The Hangar Dance

The Laird’s Right-Hand Lady

The Office Party

The Ramblers

Three Medieval Romances

Three Romances

 

 

Chapter 1

 

“Millicent, I assure you, if the horse could have been saved we would have saved it–”

“You could have saved it – you should have! Nothing should have been done without my consent–”

“But my dear, the horse was in agony. To have delayed in taking action would’ve been sheer cruelty–”

“I ask you again, Father, who fired the shot?”

Sir Randolph Awbridge remained reticent, saying calmly, “It makes no odds Millie–”

“I demand to know,” the girl persisted, adding, “If you don’t tell me, one of the housemaids will,” when her father’s silence had lasted too long.

Randolph looked upon his daughter forlornly. “It was Ryan–”

“The stable lad!”

“Now, Millicent, do not react rashly. The boy only acted upon my orders!” But by the time Randolph had finished his speech, the girl had fled from the drawing room, bound for the door. She was now out of earshot and Randolph knew there was no point in pursuing her.

 

  • * *

 

Millicent Awbridge ran along the long corridor of Glassnest Hall until she reached the kitchens. Narrowly avoiding a collision with Effie, the housemaid, she tore through the scullery and headed for the back door of the grand house. She ran through the stable yard, where a fleeting glimpse of the empty stall that had been her own beloved Charger’s home brought a tear to her eye and reminded her of her purpose. She sped up; she had an account to settle.

Beyond the yard, Millie followed the track that meandered into the woodland of the estate. There, she knew, in a small hovel of a house, Ryan O’Flynn resided with his grandmother. Ryan, whom her father had brought back with him from a trip to Ireland some ten years ago, when she herself had just been old enough to hold still a memory of the small, pale, blonde boy.

“Whatever were you thinking, Randolph?” her mother had complained when the boy had been taken away to be washed and more suitably clothed.

“He was an orphan. They had no place for him on the estate where I was staying. He’s such an endearing little chap and has a wonderful way with horses. He’ll make a fine stable lad.”

Amelia Awbridge had laughed incredulously at the suggestion. “Randolph, the boy is a runt. You say he’s nine but he’s barely any bigger than Millie–”

“With a good diet, he’ll grow strong and if he stays short then he’ll no doubt make a decent jockey. That boy’s an investment, Amelia, you mark my words.”

But he hadn’t stayed short, Millie reflected with satisfaction as she picked her way along the woodland track. Ryan was now approaching six foot – far too tall to be a jockey. However, to Millie’s chagrin, this fact didn’t seem to impede her father’s affection for him.

Millie had reached the cottage. She walked up to the door and banged on it three times with her clenched fist. When there wasn’t an instant response to her knock, she thumped her fist against the old wooden door again, perversely glad at the pain the action caused her: it just made her feel angrier, which must be good.

The door opened. “What on earth are you doing? The old lady’s just got off to sleep.”

“How dare you take that tone with me. I shall be telling my father.”

Ryan stepped outside the house and closed the door after him. “Will you keep your voice down, young lady,” he said, doubly aggrieved, first by her rudeness and then by her indignation at his response. “And will you be telling Sir Randolph that you came round here causing trouble, upsetting my ailing grandmother?”

Ryan stood close to Millie, who had been reluctant to give up her post on the doorstep. He towered over her, trying to edge her away from the threshold but finding her resistant.

“Don’t you touch me,” Millie cautioned when she found that her refusal to budge had caused them to make contact.

“Believe me, Miss Millicent, I have no desire to do any such thing.”

“You killed my horse – you shot Charger dead,” she said, pushing the stable lad back against the door but discovering that her force was futile against his strength and stature.

“There was nothing else could have been done, Miss Millie.”

“Yes there was. He needn’t have died,” she protested, her face erupting into tears and her fists now beating against Ryan’s chest. She found that they were swiftly arrested by firm grasping hands.

Defeated, Millie bawled into the rough shirt of indistinct colour that she saw in front of her. To her surprise, she soon felt the sensation of those strong hands that had apprehended her, stroking her hair and caressing her shoulder, and, in response, Millie found her own arms clinging to the detested horse-murderer.

“There, there, Miss Millicent,” he said, seeming only to remember their respective positions upon utterance of her name.

Millie felt Ryan withdraw from the embrace. She looked up from his chest and into his blue eyes, which she now realised portrayed fear. The fearless Irish lad, who had not balked at confronting her on his doorstep, was fearful, she could tell, that his display of affection would be relayed to her father. He stood awkwardly, apart from her now, his arms folded. “I’m sorry Miss,” he said, raising his hand to brush a blonde curl from his face.

Millie feared he might tug his forelock. “No, I’m sorry, Ryan,” she hastened. “I’ve behaved like a child. Of course you had no choice but to do as my father instructed.”

“It was for the best, Miss Millie,” Ryan said quietly.

She realised he wasn’t going to look at her again.

“I’m sorry I disturbed you – and your grandmother. Please forgive me and give her my regards,” Millie said, turning, reluctantly, to leave him in peace.

As she walked away from the cottage Millie heard the front door close shut. She turned and gazed at the humble dwelling, not caring whether he saw her do it.

Something had changed today, Millicent knew. The loss of Charger had seemed unbearable. Unbearable, that was, until she’d felt Ryan’s arms about her; until some stronger bond of affection had been awakened by his tenderness.

Millie turned back and continued on to the big house, feeling the strangest of sensations. If only it were possible to capture that one perfect moment when Ryan had held her like it was possible for them to behave like that towards one another all the time. If only. Because, from the look on his face, she knew he wasn’t going to do it again.

And all Millie could think about for the rest of that day was Ryan. Nobody worried about the fact that she cried all night because everybody thought she was crying about the horse.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

“Millicent, I don’t find it easy to talk about these things. It’s at times like this when I lack the necessary sensibilities of a mother…”

Why, Millie pondered, could her father never just say, “It’s now that I miss your mother.” He managed always, somehow, to negotiate awkwardly around the fact of her mother’s death.

“I’ve asked your Aunt Rose to come and stay with us for the duration of the house party, with the intention that she will act as something of a chaperon towards you.”

“It’s quite unnecessary, Papa–”

“On the contrary, my dear, I think at this juncture in your life a chaperon is quite necessary.” He paused. “You know, of course, that Mr Windham is among the guests.”

Millicent squirmed at the mention of his name. “Father, I believe I have explained before that I do not wish to look upon Benjamin Windham as a suitor–”

“But my dear you do not know the young man. He has prospects, breeding–”

“He has not breeding,” Millie was quick to correct.

“He has far better prospects than many with far better breeding, that’s the point, my girl. And he has expressed a keen interest in you.”

“But Papa–”

“So I would ask that, under the watchful eye of your Aunt Rose, you seek to become acquainted with Mr Benjamin Windham whilst he is staying in our home. I am confident that, upon better acquaintance with that young man, you will find him a most agreeable suitor, Millicent.”

Millie could see that opposition was futile. The house party was all arranged and, moreover, her father’s mind was made up. There was nothing to be done but go along with it.

 

  • * *

 

Millie sat at the long dining table, opposite her Aunt Rose. Beside her sat Ben Windham. Having tried fruitlessly to engage Millie in conversation, he had now turned his attention to Miss Arabella Price, who was seated to his right. This transfer of interest had not escaped the notice of Aunt Rose, who now shot Millie piercing glances of disapproval.

The house party was rapidly becoming too much for Millicent. Initially she’d tried to be agreeable and accommodating towards Mr Windham but as soon as she had given him any encouragement, he had overstepped the mark and tried to take advantage.

“He asked to kiss me,” Millie had complained to Aunt Rose, in the belief that the grand dame would surely see how inappropriate the request had been.

But Rose had only laughed, saying scornfully, “With the signals your father has been giving him, I’m surprised he asked so little.”

“It’s not so little,” Millie had insisted.

“Granted, Millicent, in my day such a request may have been viewed as precocious but times are changing, girl,” was all her aunt had replied. Millie interpreted this to mean that her chaperon thought she should grant Mr Windham his wish. But she wouldn’t.

“I’m nipping out for a breath of fresh air, Aunt Rose,” Millie said across the table, rising and vacating her seat before Aunt Rose had a chance to detain her.

Millie wandered to the back of the house and through the busy kitchens, dodging the servants who scurried in the opposite direction to serve the dinner of many courses.

“You shouldn’t be in here, Miss,” young Effie complained, as Millie walked through the scullery, bound for the back door, “You’ll spoil your new dress.”

But Millie just smiled blithely at the girl and carried on. She cared nothing for the dress.

When she was out in the stable yard, Millie looked about but could see no one; all the staff had been called into the house to help with dinner, it seemed. But then she spied lamplight from the furthest stall. She headed for it.

It was as Millicent had hoped. Of course, Ryan had managed to resist the call to wait on the gentry for the evening. Millie leant against the stable door, hoping the fabric of her dress would catch on it and be ripped to shreds. He was examining the hooves of her father’s favourite stallion. He had his back to her. She smiled to witness his broad shoulders, his shirtsleeves rolled up, as, bent over, he scraped at the horse’s hoof.

It was not until Ryan set the hoof back down and went to examine the next one, that, from the corner of his eye, he noticed Millie. He started. “I didn’t see you there, Miss Millicent,” he said.

Millie just smiled at him and, pushing open the stable door, entered the stall.

“That’s a pretty dress,” Ryan observed. “Be careful you don’t get it dirty in here.”

“You too!” Millie complained.

“Sorry?” Ryan asked.

“I’ve already been cautioned by Effie,” Millie explained.

“Well, you should be careful,” Ryan said.

“It’s just a dress,” Millie replied dismissively.

“But you look beautiful in it,” Ryan continued, adding involuntarily, “You look like a woman.” Immediately he said it, he regretted his foolish admission.

The dress was full-length, white and lacy; chosen by Millie’s father, on the advice of Aunt Rose, no doubt. The dress was, Millie suspected, intended to make her look like a bride.

“What are you doing?” Millie asked Ryan.

“Checking Wellington over before Sir Randolph’s hunt tomorrow.”

“Is he fit?”

“He’s due a trip to the farrier. That’s why I’m concerned.”

“Aren’t you clever, Ryan. It’s probably the only excuse Daddy would accept to get you out of serving tonight.”

Ryan laughed dismissively but didn’t deny her suggestion.

“You hate all that, don’t you – all that ceremony,” Millie mused.

“I just like working with horses,” Ryan returned simply.

“What do you think of Mr Windham?” Millie found it irresistible to ask.

“Windham? I’m not sure which of the gents you mean. They all seem much of a muchness to me,” Ryan replied casually, to Millie’s delight.

“Mr Windham has asked me to kiss him,” Millie divulged rashly.

Ryan laughed rather nervously. “Have you been drinking Champagne, Miss Millie?”

“Buckets of it,” she replied.

Ryan laughed again.

“You’d hate that as well,” Millie observed.

“I’ve never tasted it–”

“You don’t want to; you’d hate it.”

During the discussion, Millie had closed in on Ryan, whilst he had attempted, somewhat vainly, to continue inspecting Wellington’s hooves.

“What would you think if I asked you to kiss me?” Millie blurted over Ryan’s lowered head.

At that, he dropped Wellington’s leg and stood upright.

“You’d think it quite rude, wouldn’t you?” Millie pursued.

Ryan’s expression animated, he replied, “It’s a dilemma I’m unlikely to face, Miss.”

“But why?” Millie asked plainly. “If Benjamin Windham can ask it of me, why shouldn’t I ask it of you?”

Ryan’s amusement subsided. He looked at Millie intently. “Please don’t play games with me, Miss Millicent. I think you’ve just had too much to drink tonight.”

“But I haven’t, Ryan – and I’m not.”

Millie edged forward and pressed her fingers gently against Ryan’s strong, broad chest, recalling how she had buried her head in it on the day he’d shot Charger. “If Benjamin Windham –for whom I care so little– can ask it of me, then why shouldn’t I ask it of you, Ryan? You, for whom I care a lot,” she qualified unguardedly, looking up into his eyes.

With his expression still so very serious, Ryan leant forward and, very gently, placed a kiss on Millie’s brow. “I think you should get back to your party now, Miss,” he said.

But Millie leapt to embrace Ryan, demanding, “Hold me.”

“I can’t Miss Millie,” Ryan replied, drawing himself upright to escape her grasp and holding his own arms apart.

Why?” she complained.

“For one thing, my hands are filthy and I’d spoil your dress and, for another, your father would have me hanged if he found out,” Ryan explained, trying to remain light-hearted in tone and convince himself it was just the Champagne talking.

“Then kiss me properly,” Millie insisted, “on the lips. Kiss me properly and I’ll leave you in peace. We’re quite alone; nobody need ever know,” she added.

“You promise?” he said, looking down at Millie and involuntarily smiling into her eyes.

“I promise,” she said.

And so he kissed her. Not a transient peck but a lingering kiss that left an imprint on Millie for the rest of the evening and beyond. The soft warmth of his lips; the gentle pressure he exerted on her own lips, and how he stood still, his arms still free of Millie, but didn’t resist her efforts to press the blasted dress against him and soil it with his stable-grime.

When he finally ceased Millie just stood before him, speechless.

“We had an agreement,” Ryan said softly but firmly.

“I know,” she replied in a whisper, reluctant to leave his side. “Thank you, Ryan,” Millie said humbly before taking leave of him.

“It was my pleasure, Miss Millie,” the stable lad replied, trying hard to stifle any elation he was feeling in the aftermath of their encounter.

Back inside and onto a sweet course of Baked Alaska that Millie was glad she hadn’t missed, Aunt Rose looked upon the girl dubiously and announced, “You took your time.”

“It’s this dress, Aunt Rose,” Millie responded immediately. “It’s hell. I went to the powder room and had a devil of a time adjusting it once I was done.”

Aunt Rose raised her eyebrows at this disclosure and, out of earshot of Benjamin Windham, cautioned, “Millicent, don’t talk so or you will never make a society wife.”

Millie smiled sweetly at her chaperon, took a mouthful of the pudding and savoured the taste of the sugary meringue and the sensation of the cool ice cream slipping down her throat. Downing a sip of the sweetest dessert wine, Millie registered Aunt Rose’s disapproval of what had, by Millie’s standards, been a considerable intake of wine that evening.

How marvellous! She’d only really drunk the wine to stave off the boredom of a dinner sat next to Ben Windham but it had given her the courage to approach Ryan.

And so, triumphing over adversity, Millie had resisted a kiss from a man she disdained and solicited one from a man she truly admired.

In Millie’s small and orchestrated world, this was an estimable victory: her first kiss, delivered by the man she’d chosen, rather than one who’d been selected for her.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

The morning after the fine dinner, Glassnest Hall was abuzz with preparations for Sir Randolph’s hunt. Millie’s absence was first detected at breakfast but it wasn’t long before Effie approached Sir Randolph, telling him that his daughter sent her apologies but was afflicted with a migraine and so wouldn’t be joining the hunt that morning. Upon overhearing this disclosure, Aunt Rose rolled her eyes.

Millie didn’t emerge from her room, on the top flight and in the furthest recess of the vast house, until she had watched –from the corner of her window– the horses depart from the courtyard, hounds swarming about their hooves as they set off.

Once the hunt was underway, Ben Windham was no longer a threat to her peace of mind. Millie sensed there would be a nip in the air and so, pulling on a cape, she quitted the bedchamber and, taking the least-trafficked route through the house, emerged into the crisp, fresh, morning.

Almost against reason, Millie headed straight for the stables, where she found a group of menservants taking advantage of the fact that the houseguests were now occupied for some time. Millie heard throats being cleared as her presence was detected. A couple of the young men instinctively threw down their cigarettes and stubbed them out with their feet. Millie felt a peculiar rush of power and had to stifle a smile. “Good morning, John,” she said brightly to the most senior man, “I wonder if you can tell me where Ryan O’Flynn is?”

“I believe you may find him in the barn Miss,” came the response from John, along with a few muffled chuckles from the other men.

A couple of minutes later, upon entering the barn, Millie soon discovered the source of the men’s amusement. Ryan lay, on a blanket spread out at the base of a stack of hay, sound asleep. Loitering in the yard and smoking was one thing but sleeping on the job would truly outrage Sir Randolph. Millie laughed to think of the men’s assumption that she would shop Ryan; to think of what they didn’t know.

Throwing her cape onto the hay, she sat down beside Ryan and gazed upon his handsome face. He looked angelic sleeping, his looks and his locks so fair. Hovering over him, she softly stroked his cheek with the back of her hand and then tangled her fingers in his hair.

He stirred.

“Shhh,” Millie whispered. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Sorry Miss Millie,” Ryan said, disoriented, “I don’t know what came over me. I’ll get straight back to work,” and he made to stand up.

But Millie pulled him back, saying laughingly, “No you won’t!”

Ryan fell back into the hay and gazed up at her. “I didn’t sleep a wink last night,” he admitted.

“Why?” she asked innocently.

“Why!” he replied incredulously, shaking his head. “Did you sleep?”

“Like a baby, thank you,” she replied, playfully.

“Word in the big house is that you’re the worse for drink–”

“Nonsense! I’m as fit as a fiddle. I just wanted to get out of the hunt. And I wanted to see you.” Millie stroked Ryan’s cheek again and smiled into his blue eyes.

“Miss Millicent,” he began soberly.

“Can’t you just call me Millie and drop the Miss? Effie calls me Millie – when we’re alone. I said to her one day, ‘How outrageous that you’ve seen me in my drawers but you still persist in calling me Miss’–” Millie remembered herself and saw that her rash talk had embarrassed the shy stable lad.

Ryan had turned his face away from her. “This can’t go on, Miss Millie,” he said.

“Why?” Millie replied softly.

“Because I’m not your kind; I’m not of your rank–”

“And what if I ordered you?” Millie announced with sudden imperiousness, reverting to the spoilt child she had not so long since been.

Ryan’s response was characteristically measured and adult. “Well then it wouldn’t be what you seem to want it to be, would it?”

She didn’t understand.

“You seem to want love.”

“Can’t you love me?” Millie asked with childlike simplicity.

“Oh I could love you, alright,” Ryan said earnestly, “but it could never be truly fulfilled–”

“Why not?”

“Can you see Randolph giving his only child away to an Irish peasant?” Ryan paused, looking intently up into Millie’s eyes.

She didn’t know how she could resist kissing him but, as she bent her head, Ryan said, “Miss Millie, don’t–”

Millie started and, tears in her eyes, tried to rise from the blanket.

“But please, let’s not part like this,” Ryan pleaded, reaching up and holding out his arm to her.

She knelt before him, trying hard to control her sobs. “Do you want me or not?” she asked forlornly.

Ryan sat up and, leaning on one hand, with his knee bent so as to encircle her body with his own, lifted his free hand to wipe the tears from Millie’s cheeks. “Millicent, are you sure you want me?” he said very earnestly.

“Yes,” she replied decisively.

“Are you certain you wouldn’t prefer your Mr Windham and all his finery?”

“No,” she said firmly.

“What do you see in me?” Ryan asked.

Millie smiled, encouraged that he seemed to be retracting his decision to end things, and endeared by his lack of self-confidence. “Have you looked in a mirror recently, Ryan?” she replied, with a twinkle in her eye.

He shrugged his shoulders dismissively and, shaking his head, said, “But I can barely read, Millie–”

She placed her finger on his lips and said, “Shhh.”

But he persisted. “All I know is horses.”

Millie shuffled closer to him and shook her head. “Horses and women,” she said, her eyes now glistening brightly, not with teardrops but expectation.

Laughing, Ryan collapsed back into the haystack. To Miss Millie’s delight, he pulled her down with him.

 

  • * *

 

“And when I came to find you this morning, Millicent, I was informed by John that you were most probably with Ryan O’Flynn. What on earth were you doing with the stable lad?”

Groom, Aunt Rose; he’s a grown man, not a boy.”

“Do her up tighter, Effie, or we’ll never see her married to Ben Windham.”

Millie was leaning on the end of the bed frame as Effie reluctantly tightened her corset to extremity.

“But I don’t think she’ll be able to breathe, Ma’am,” Effie protested.

“Nonsense, do her up.”

Effie tied the cords, whispering, “Sorry,” to Millie as she did.

“I repeat, Millicent, what pray were you doing with Ryan O’Flynn?”

Millie, once Effie had finished tying the cords, pulled herself very slowly upright and answered dispassionately, “Talking about horses.”

“Turn to face me, Millicent,” Aunt Rose directed, dissatisfied with her niece’s response.

Millie did her bidding.

“And look at me, girl. This evening is your last chance to impress Mr Windham. If you don’t do better than you’ve done so far it is all but a foregone conclusion that he will propose to Arabella Price instead of you.”

‘If only he would,’ Millie thought but didn’t dare say.

“Put on her dress, Effie; the blue chiffon one this evening. Do we understand one another, Millicent?”

“I think so,” Millie replied equivocally.

Rose, in two minds whether to overlook her niece’s lack of total compliance, huffed dramatically and left the room.

When she’d gone Effie let out a sigh of relief.

“Believe me, Effie, I’d do the same if I could move,” Millie said.

Without asking, Effie undid the cords of the corset and loosened it.

“You’re such a sweetheart,” Millie said to the girl, sighing.

“We don’t want you keeling over, Miss,” Effie replied. She adjusted the garment so that Millie could breathe more freely and just about bend. Millie stood quietly, enjoying the sensation of being liberated.

As she tied the corset at the looser setting, Effie began tentatively, “If you don’t mind my asking, Miss, why don’t you like Mr Windham?”

“Effie, the man is a bore,” Millie replied. “I have literally nothing in common with him. I’ve nothing to say to him.” She paused. “And I detest his over-enthusiasm for hunting.”

“I thought they didn’t hunt in the summertime,” Effie said.

“Yesterday they went cub hunting–”

Baby foxes?” Effie asked, alarmed.

“Exactly. That’s the kind of man he is. My father would never have arranged the hunt if Windham hadn’t been here.”

There was silence for a moment as Effie lifted the sky-blue chiffon dress over Millie’s head.

“But he is handsome,” Effie pursued tentatively, once the dress was on and she was fastening it up.

“You think so?” Millie replied dubiously.

“I mean, he is generally considered to be handsome,” Effie qualified, growing, Millie noted in the full-length mirror into which she looked, rosy-cheeked at the mention of Ben Windham.

“Do you think him handsome, Effie?” Millie asked playfully.

“Yes I do Miss,” Effie admitted simply after a pause, hanging her head to hide her face in the glass as she spoke.

“Well,” Millie said finally, “so long as I carry on doing abominably, he’ll hopefully be engaged to Arabella Price by tomorrow morning and good riddance to them both; we can all get back to normal.”

 

 

Chapter 4

 

“Would you like potatoes, Miss?” Ryan asked Millie awkwardly.

“I would love potatoes, Ryan,” she replied enthusiastically, delighting in the look of disgust her exuberance elicited from Aunt Rose.

Millie was once again at table with Aunt Rose opposite and Ben Windham to her side. But tonight was different because even Ryan had not escaped being called upon to serve. One of the butlers had gone down with a bug so the stable lad had been forced to don trousers, tails, shirt and tie, there being no hunt planned for the morning to provide him with a reasonable excuse to get out of serving duties.

He leant over Millie and inexpertly attempted to serve her boiled potatoes. Millie smiled up at him inappropriately as he did.

“Is that enough Miss?” Ryan asked.

Aunt Rose tutted at Ryan’s lack of table etiquette.

Millie beamed and said, “That’s lovely Ryan. Thank you.”

Looking embarrassed, Ryan moved on to Ben Windham.

Rose glared at her niece.

“Yum,” Millie said, surveying her plate. “I do love partridge, don’t you Aunt?”

Rose shook her head. “I think you shall not be having any more wine this evening, Millicent. It has quite obviously gone straight to your head. I wish they’d hurry up with the vegetables and then we could start. Some solid food may bring you to your senses.”

 

  • * *

 

“Ryan,” Millie whispered through a crack in the study door as he passed along the corridor. His attention secured, she reached out her hand and pulled him into the dark room. Closing the door behind them, Millie led Ryan over to the window, where, the curtains drawn back, the light of the moon offered some illumination.

“What are you doing?” Ryan asked, half alarmed, half awestruck by her behaviour.

“Come here,” she said, positioning him in the moonlit window.

“I’m expected in the kitchens,” he complained.

“But you’re needed here,” she insisted, reaching up and kissing his cheek.

“Millie,” he cautioned. “This isn’t the time or the place.”

“Oh you’re so dull,” she chided affectionately.

“So let me go,” he said.

“Not until you’ve tasted this,” Millie replied, lifting a glass of Champagne from the window ledge and raising it to his lips.

Ryan sipped it.

“What do you think?” Millie asked.

“Disgusting,” he replied.

“I know; have some more,” she said.

She raised the glass once more and, tilting it too acutely, spilt drink down Ryan’s chin.

Laughing, he stepped back and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his jacket.

“You’re the most handsome man in the dining room, by the way,” Millie said.

“Give over,” he replied modestly, adding, “You’re the most beautiful girl, it goes without saying.”

“Why, thank you Mr O’Flynn,” Millie said, curtsying to him and then returning the glass to the window ledge.

“Very curvaceous in that dress,” he elaborated.

“Oh don’t you dare,” she said. “If you had any idea of the pain I’m withstanding to carry this off – and that’s not the half of it. It’s only because Effie took pity on me that I can breathe at all.”

Ryan gazed upon her adoringly. Millie looked up at him proudly, saying, “But you really do brush up well, Mr O’Flynn,” and then standing on tiptoes to kiss him again.

“We must go,” Ryan repeated.

“Must we?” she whispered tiresomely into his ear, before placing a lingering kiss on his cheek.

Ryan turned his head so that their lips met. Taking Millie in his arms, he lifted her off the floor. She was suspended in mid-air for one heavenly minute before he decisively set her back down and said, “Enough, I have to leave.”

Without another word, he strode across the room and, once he’d checked the coast was clear, opened the door and slipped out into the passage, leaving Millie swooning in the dark.

She took up the glass from the window sill and drank the remains of its contents, smiling stupidly up at the moon as she did.

 

  • * *

 

Later that same night Millie picked her way along the woodland track that led to Ryan’s cottage, the bright moon her only guide in the darkness. The winds were strong and the rain drove into her face. She struggled to hold the umbrella so as to shield her, yet manage to see what she was walking into, whilst keeping the long, blue dress hitched up off the muddy ground. She had, at least, changed her shoes before setting out from the house but she hadn’t thought there time to change into more appropriate attire – that would have required Effie’s assistance, anyway.

When she reached Ryan’s home, Millie, in stark contrast to the first occasion upon which she had knocked on the cottage door, tapped softly on the wood. She’d have to make herself heard above the wind but she didn’t want to disturb his grandmother, who would surely, by now, be sleeping. Millie was relying on a hunch she had that Ryan would still be up. She had learned from John that Ryan had been allowed by her father to go off duty earlier than the other staff, in view of the need for him to rise early to tend to any houseguests who wished to ride before breakfast. She’d taken advantage of the commotion of the aftermath of dinner, to slip away to find him. But he wasn’t expecting her so there was an element of doubt in her mind.

Millie knocked again, this time harder. A moment later the door opened. “You’re drenched, Miss Millie,” Ryan said, pulling her in out of the rain.

“Do you mind my coming over?” Millie asked.

“No, of course not,” Ryan replied, taking Millie’s umbrella and shaking it out into the night, before closing the door. “Come and sit down,” he said, ushering her over to a fireside chair.

“I’ll sit on the floor,” Millie said. “If I sit on a chair I’ll make it damp,” and she tried to get down onto the hearth rug but found that her corset restricted her movement.

“Millie, if you sit on the floor, that dress will get filthy.”

“I can’t get down anyway,” she explained, standing, frustrated, beside the fire. “Oh lord,” she mused, “by the time I get back Effie’ll have given me up for a lost cause and gone to bed so I’ll have to sleep in this insufferable contraption too.”

“The corset? Can’t you take it off yourself?” Ryan asked, perplexed.

“Not when she’s tied it so tightly.” Millie stood looking despondently into the flames dancing in the grate.

Ryan walked over to Millie and, standing behind her, began to undo the fastenings of her blue chiffon dress. “I think we need to get you out of the dress and out of the corset,” he said, in a tone that wasn’t purely practical.

Millie didn’t dispute the idea. She smiled as the fabric of the dress fell about her shoulders and gladly relinquished the garment once Ryan had lifted it up and over her head. He draped the dress carefully on the back of an armchair and then turned to face her.

Millie began to feel self-conscious, realising that she had never before appeared in her undergarments in front of a man. Ryan, sensing her discomfort, began jovially, “Now for the greater challenge!” referring to the tightly-drawn corset that Millie wore on top of her chemise. But as he gazed upon the challenge, he couldn’t help but register her bosom heaving gently in its lacy frills and take note of the accentuated curves of her waist and hips.

Millie, observing Ryan’s rapt attention to her form, felt a little bolder. She turned away from him to frustrate his eager eyes and said, “You need to undo Effie’s knots first.”

But Ryan, before stepping forward to grapple with the knotted cords, took his opportunity to survey Millie’s curves from the back.

“Get on with it please, Ryan,” Millie commanded, smiling to herself with the knowledge that he was probably on as unfamiliar territory as she herself was.

Ryan undid the knots almost instantly and began to loosen the strings of the corset. “Feel better?” he asked as he pulled the whalebone structure away from Millie’s torso.

“Oh yes,” she said and heaved a sigh of relief to be able to breathe properly again. Millie stepped out of the corset, which Ryan threw onto a chair. Looking back at her, still standing before the fire, Ryan suddenly realised that all that now came between his hands and her bare flesh was a thin layer of cloth. “I’ll fetch you a blanket,” he said rather awkwardly and left the room.

Millie was quick to make herself at home. She pulled up the old, wooden rocking-chair closer to the fire and sat down in it.

Ryan returned and, kneeling down beside her, draped a woven blanket about her shoulders. “Would you like some tea?” he asked. “There’s some in the pot.”

“Yes please,” Millie replied. She watched Ryan rise and top up the teapot with hot water from the copper kettle on the fire, before pouring her a drink.

“This place is like going back in time,” Millie observed, allowing her eye to wander over to the paraffin lamp that, apart from the firelight, was the only source of illumination in the room.

“Right enough, Sir Randolph hasn’t managed to get us electricity out here yet,” Ryan said. “Not sure my Gran would want it anyway,” he added on reflection.

“She’s asleep?” Millie enquired.

“Yes.”

“I’ll keep my voice down.”

“No need to worry too much – she’s practically deaf,” Ryan said, handing Millie her mug of tea. “You warm enough?” he asked as he took his place beside her chair on the rug.

She nodded and drank from the cup.

Gazing up at Millie, Ryan reached a hand to push back the blanket from her shoulders, to reveal her flesh to his eyes.

She didn’t curb his action. She put down her cup and looked at him.

“You’re so beautiful, Millie,” Ryan said, beginning to stroke the soft skin of her upper arms, whilst gazing upon the pale flesh of her cleavage.

“You can touch me anywhere, Ryan,” Millie said boldly.

Ryan raised his eyebrows in surprise and Millie worried that she might have gone too far. But unaccountably she found herself continuing, “Arabella Price tells me there are times when a girl can’t get pregnant. She’s explained it all to me and I believe that, if we were to –you know– I wouldn’t get pregnant now.”

Ryan’s hand was stilled by these words. He looked into Millie’s eyes and raised his hand to her cheek, saying, “It’s not that simple, Millie.”

Millie was confused.

“I’m a Catholic,” Ryan explained. “We don’t have relations outside of marriage.”

“Oh,” Millie said.

“But that doesn’t mean I can’t touch you or hold you,” Ryan continued.

Kneeling, Ryan reached up to kiss Millie’s lips and it wasn’t long before she had slithered from the rocking chair onto the rug in front of the fire. Millie felt Ryan’s arms about her, all of his strength employed to hold her so tenderly. She didn’t really know what Arabella had been talking about but she trusted Ryan completely.

 

  • * *

 

Millie left the cottage at an ungodly hour, her sky-blue chiffon dress now dried out; her corset abandoned and concealed at the cottage, to be returned to the Hall at some point the next day. Millie held the folds of her long cape close about her over her dress. Thankfully the rain had ceased and the winds had abated.

Ryan had been insistent he should escort Millie back to the house but she had resisted and, in the end, ordered him to stay at home. Discovery would be all the worse if he was found with her.

Millie made her way back along the woodland path by the light of the moon, her frame still shaking from the thrill of Ryan’s caresses. How did he do that? How did he know how to touch her?

When Ryan had pulled her to the floor and taken her in his arms, Millie had instinctively gone to unbutton his shirt, eager to feel his bare skin. But Ryan had stopped her, saying that he thought it was something they shouldn’t do.

“How can it be wrong when it feels so lovely?” Millie had questioned.

Ryan had shaken his head and, smiling at her innocence, kissed her again.

Millie regained entry to the house through the kitchens, having taken the key from the place where she knew the housekeeper kept it. Removing her shoes, she tiptoed through the long corridors and up the staircases, relying on her instinct and what moonlight invaded the Hall through its numerous windows, to guide her, until she reached her own room.

Once settled in her bed, she thought of Ryan: how she longed to touch him; how tender he was and yet how he must have the capacity to match that tenderness with passion.

But Millie felt sadness upon remembering what he had said to her; she would never know that passion because he could never be her husband. In the end she cried herself to sleep dwelling upon that thought.

 

 

Chapter 5

 

The morning after Sir Randolph’s grand dinner, Millie, sleep-deprived due to her nocturnal adventures, stood before her father and Aunt Rose, having been summoned to the dame’s temporary apartments in the house.

“And so, Millicent, your prospects have been irreparably damaged by your disgraceful neglect of Mr Windham–”

“To be fair, Rose, he did state the reason for his untimely departure to be his sense that a frivolously long weekend in the country seemed wholly inappropriate with a war looming–”

“Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he, Randolph?” Rose insisted.

Millie wasn’t really attending. From the back windows of Aunt Rose’s rooms she had spotted Ryan, splitting logs down in the courtyard. It being a fine morning, he had removed his shirt.

“Millicent!” Rose snapped to recall the girl. “Have you no sense of remorse about this situation? Your father planned this whole house party with the express intention that it should culminate in an engagement between yourself and Benjamin Windham. Do you have any idea of the trouble and expense he went to?”

Millie looked at her father, rather than Rose. “I’m sorry,” she began simply, “but, to tell the truth Daddy, I don’t think Ben Windham is quite proper. I don’t trust him,” she clarified.

“Why, Millie?” Randolph asked.

“I can’t account for it really,” Millie replied. “I just don’t trust him.”

“Nonsense!” Rose announced scathingly. “If she were my daughter, Randolph, I should let her become an old maid and see how she likes it.”

 

  • * *

 

Out in the courtyard, Rose having dismissed Millie and her father from her quarters in order to prepare to set out on her constitutional morning walk, Millie lingered in the shadows of the entrance to the scullery, watching Ryan at work. After a few minutes she walked quietly out into the sunlight, taking care to avoid disturbing him.

His skin, though fair, was tanned with the outdoor work he had been doing over the summer. You wouldn’t have said Ryan was slender but there was little spare flesh on his muscular upper body. Millie recalled the sight of him in evening dress and reflected, with a smile, that he looked almost as good clothed as unclothed.

He turned and saw her. “Are you spying on me, Miss?” he asked jovially.

Millie walked over to him, saying, “I was just admiring you,” when she was close enough to ensure that their exchange wouldn’t be overheard.

Ryan lay down his axe and went to pick up his shirt from on top of the woodpile.

“No need to cover up on my account,” Millie was quick to say, as she watched Ryan bend over in his roughly-woven trousers, the thickness of the leather belt around his waist catching her eye as he rose again.

“But if someone saw us, Millie, it wouldn’t look proper.”

Millie took one last, longing glance at his smooth and flawless chest before he concealed it from her eyes. “It’s tiring work,” he said as he buttoned up his shirt.

“Looks it,” Millie replied. “I thought the house staff dealt with firewood–”

“Listen, when Mrs Overton tells me to do something, I do it, no questions asked.”

Millie chuckled. Mrs Overton, the housekeeper, had a reputation that went before her.

“Miss Millie, we shouldn’t talk like this – someone might see us.”

“When can I meet you then?” Millie asked. “Tonight?”

Ryan shook his head. “Don’t you know I’m off with Randolph this afternoon to look at a racing horse?”

“He’s buying another one?” Millie remarked incredulously.

“Not outright, but he’s considering entering into a syndicate; the horse wouldn’t be kept here – it’s already in stables.”

“Oh,” Millie said. “When will you be back?”

“The day after tomorrow,” Ryan replied.

With a sigh of resignation, Millie said, “I’ll just have to wait till then, won’t I?”

 

  • * *

 

The day that Randolph and Ryan went to look at a racing horse seemed like any other to Millie, apart from the fact that her Aunt Rose was still in residence at Glassnest, which curtailed Millie’s freedom somewhat.

In the morning she hung restlessly about the house, thinking of Ryan the whole time, wondering what he was doing – what conversation went between him and her father? She knew, however, that their only shared interest was horses.

If Millie had still had a horse, she would have gone riding on a day like this. But since she’d lost Charger, she had no stomach for it. Certainly, she could have had her pick of the horses in the stables – even Wellington, in the absence of her father, although he was a fierce brute of a horse; Millie never felt quite safe with him. But she just didn’t want to ride; not now her beloved Charger was gone.

In the end, in a bid to occupy herself and escape the beady eye of Aunt Rose, Millie slipped out of the house at eleven o’clock and embarked on a long ramble around Glassnest’s extensive grounds.

It wasn’t until two in the afternoon that she began to wend her way back towards the Hall, taking, irresistibly, the woodland track that led to Ryan’s cottage.

As Millie passed by the cottage garden, she spotted the old lady, wrapped, as was her custom, in her shawl, stooping over a vegetable patch.

“Hello there!” Millie called to her.

The old lady turned and slowly stood up straight.

“Why, Miss, it has turned out a fine day to be sure,” she called to Millie, who made her way over to the garden fence.

“I’ve had a lovely walk in the woods,” Millie said.

“You do right, Miss,” Ryan’s grandmother commented. “I would dearly love to walk, if only my old bones were up to it.”

“What have you got there?” Millie enquired, gesturing to what the old woman held in her hands.

“Oh just a couple of spuds for my tea.”

Millie suddenly felt concern that she might be struggling to look after herself in Ryan’s absence. “Is that all you’re having?” she asked involuntarily.

The woman laughed. “Oh no Miss, these are to accompany a very nice slice of salmon quiche that was left over from the party at the weekend.”

“Oh yes,” Millie said, relieved, “Cook’s quiches are the best!”

“I do very well with what’s sent over from the kitchens – they treat me well here,” Ryan’s grandmother continued.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Millie said.

“You’re welcome to stay for a cup of tea, Miss,” the old lady offered warmly. “I was just about to brew a pot for myself.”

Millie hesitated momentarily before saying, “Yes, that would be lovely.” What did she care if Aunt Rose was missing her?

 

  • * *

 

Millie didn’t return to the Hall until almost five o’clock. Though she’d never before really spoken with Ryan’s grandma and had felt at first nervous upon entering the little cottage with her, it had not been long before the two had settled in front of the fire and begun to talk easily. Millie had insisted upon making the tea, and first building up the fire in order to heat the copper kettle.

Ryan’s grandma had told her many stories about their family and life in Ireland, including the sad tales of the deaths of both of Ryan’s parents. She had enjoyed reminiscing and Millie, of course, had been eager to digest all she was told. There was no better way of coping with Ryan’s absence than talking about him. Sitting in her chair on the hearth, sipping her tea from the same cup and saucer that Ryan had given her, she felt entirely happy to be in his home.

“He’s a good boy, our Ryan,” the old lady said.

“Yes he is,” Millie agreed, recalling, with some embarrassment, the things they had done the last time she’d been at that fireside.

“I worry that, if there’s a war, I’ll lose him,” the old woman couldn’t help but add.

“Oh that won’t happen,” Millie said glibly. “There won’t be a war.”

 

  • * *

 

When Millie finally re-entered Glassnest Hall it wasn’t long before she bumped into a sombre-looking Mrs Overton. “You’re wanted by your Aunt Rose in the study, Miss,” she said.

Millie sighed and headed on in the direction of the stairs.

“No Miss Millie,” Mrs Overton said sternly, “you are to report to her straight away.”

Millie wondered what on earth she’d done now.

She knocked on the door of the study like a disgraced schoolgirl.

“Enter,” came a call from within.

Millie pushed open the heavy dark-wood door to see Aunt Rose seated at a table, reading from a large volume.

“Mrs Overton said you wanted to see me, Aunt,” Millie began.

“Where have you been all day?” Rose asked irritably.

“I went for a walk–”

“For six hours!” the grand dame cried.

“I went to visit Grandmother O’Flynn on my way back–”

“Really Millicent, your tendency to fraternise with the lower orders is inexcusable, inexcusable–”

“I had nothing better to do, Aunt,” Millie replied casually. “What’s the problem? What have I missed?” she asked with a hint of sarcasm.

Rose looked upon the girl steadily and Millie sensed that her aunt’s customary stance of disapproval was tempered by some real anxiety. She began to feel nervous. “Nothing’s wrong is it? Ryan’s alright? Daddy’s alright?”

“Typical – you think of the groom before Sir Randolph!”

“But nothing’s happened?” Millie said urgently.

“So far as I know, Millicent, your father and his boy are in the pink. But, referring to your earlier enquiry as to what you have missed, I’m sorry to have to be the one to inform you that we are at war with Germany, Millicent–”

“War?” the girl echoed softly.

“Yes, Millicent, war,” Aunt Rose confirmed.

 

 

Chapter 6

 

Millie had been watching from the window of her father’s first floor apartments for the last half-hour. From here she had the best vantage to see any vehicle approaching on the long drive that ran up to the forecourt of the Hall. After what seemed an eternity, she spotted her father’s car.

Millie rushed out of the chamber, along the corridor and down the flight of stairs to the grand entrance lobby. She opened the heavy double doors and ran out on to the terrace, just in time to meet the car.

Randolph stepped out of the passenger door and was immediately engulfed in his daughter’s arms. “Daddy!” she cried, only now realising how much tension had been building up inside her since Aunt Rose’s revelation of the previous evening.

“Oh my darling,” Randolph said comfortingly, as he drew his only child closer to him.

“Where’s Ryan?” Millie asked eagerly. She longed to embrace him too.

“I sent him on ahead,” Randolph explained.

The sight that Millie beheld from the corner of her eye, of Aunt Rose emerging from the house, confirmed her awareness that she couldn’t have hugged Ryan even if he’d been present.

“Good afternoon Randolph,” Rose began coolly, intending the greeting to break the embrace between father and daughter – such displays of affection didn’t do in front of the servants.

Randolph reluctantly let Millie go and went to kiss Aunt Rose.

“I thought you were merely intending to enter into part-ownership of a horse, Randolph, but you appear to have brought one home, so the house staff tell me,” she continued.

“Ah,” said Randolph, “I did enter into the syndicate –the racehorse is a fine specimen and it was too good an opportunity to miss– but what we have bought is an ex-racehorse,” and Randolph gestured to Ryan, who was now walking the horse around from the back of the house. “It was young Ryan’s idea really,” Randolph admitted, at which Rose tossed back her head scornfully. “I thought my little girl needed a bit of cheering up and Ryan spotted this fine-looking mare, so…”

Millie heard hooves on the gravel behind her. She turned to see Ryan holding the reins of a large, chestnut horse.

“She’s beautiful, Daddy!” Millie exclaimed, reaching up to kiss Randolph before rushing towards the horse.

“She was destined to be a racehorse but it transpired she was too stubborn and headstrong to race. Ryan said that reminded him of someone else,” Randolph began indulgently but he curtailed his disclosure upon seeing the disapproval in Rose’s eyes.

Millie stood beside Ryan and stroked the horse’s head. “Thank you Ryan,” she said, beaming up at him with such enthusiasm and warmth that he sensed the colour rising to his cheeks.

“I thought she’d be perfect for you, Miss,” Ryan replied shyly. “Not a horse for a child, like Charger, but a mount for a young lady.”

Millie gazed into his eyes, hoping that her own eyes expressed what her lips couldn’t in their present company.

“Really Randolph,” Aunt Rose whispered scathingly, “only you could respond to the news of the outbreak of war with a frivolous and wholly inappropriate purchase such as this. And after her appalling behaviour towards the Windham boy, you should be punishing her, not rewarding her.”

Randolph was about to defend himself but he didn’t get the chance.

“And taking heed of the stable lad’s opinion – I don’t know what you were thinking, Randolph.”

Rose turned her attention to her niece, who was stroking and kissing the horse.

“What’s she called, Daddy?” Millie called out, blissfully unaware of the recent exchanges between her father and aunt.

“Valiant Victory,” Randolph called back.

“Good lord!” Millie cried, “I can’t call her that.” She thought. “Where was it you were born, Ryan?” she asked a moment later.

“Oh, just a small town in County Kerry–”

“Kerry, that’s what I thought. We’ll call her Kerry. Isn’t that a lovely name for her, Daddy? We’re going to call her Kerry!”

Randolph beamed approval at the decision. Whatever else was amiss in the world, it was a reassurance to him that he could still make his daughter happy.

“Can I ride her this afternoon?” Millie asked eagerly.

“I don’t know. She’s had a long journey and Ryan must be tired too–”

“Oh please Daddy!”

“I’m quite happy to saddle up the mare, Sir Randolph; whatever suits Miss Millicent…” Ryan said with unguarded devotion.

Millie smiled at him, besotted.

Aunt Rose looked stonily upon the wayward girl who was, it was now blatantly apparent, far too familiar with the groom. She resolved that something must be done about it.

 

  • * *

 

“Steady, girl,” Millie said to Kerry as the horse began to slow down from a gallop. She looked over her shoulder and saw Ryan and Wellington gaining on them. She urged Kerry on until they reached the shade of a clump of trees. Here, she dismounted and, holding onto Kerry’s reins, stroked her head and praised her gushingly.

Ryan had been awestruck by Millie’s swift and fearless conquest of the mare. He’d also been shocked by the fact that, as soon as they had cleared the house grounds, wherein Millie had been riding in a dainty side-saddle manner, she had dismounted and then re-mounted the horse with her legs astride, hitching up her heavy skirts in order to do so. She had then proceeded to canter ahead, declaring over her shoulder, “She’s not wayward, Ryan; she just needs to be gently coaxed into doing what you want her to.”

After that she had shot off at an outright gallop, challenging Ryan to catch her.

When he finally reached the trees, Ryan got down from Wellington and produced a blanket from the saddle-bag. He walked across to Millie, saying, “Well?”

“Oh she’s marvellous; I adore her!”

Ryan spread out the blanket on the ground beneath the trees and Millie let Kerry wander alongside Wellington to munch on the luscious grass of the outer reaches of the estate.

As Millie turned back to face Ryan, he stepped forward and grabbed hold of her feverishly.

“This is such a strange time,” Millie said. “All I want is what I have: Glassnest, Kerry, you. And when I think of all I have, I’m so happy. But–”

“But you know we can’t live in a bubble forever,” Ryan anticipated. “The war will affect us all eventually–”

“Maybe it will end quickly,” Millie said without conviction.

“It won’t just fizzle out, Millicent,” Ryan warned.

“But I’ll always have you, Ryan, won’t I?” Millie said, gazing up into his eyes and then reaching her arms around his shoulders. To her delight, Ryan swept her up off the ground and carried her over to the tartan rug. He set her down on it and then sat down himself, encouraging Millie to move beside him.

“You think of everything,” Millie said, lying back on the blanket with abandon.

“I’ve missed you something awful these past few days,” Ryan replied, lying down beside her, propped on a bent arm. Ryan’s face hovered over Millie’s, surveying her. “Did you miss me?” he asked, appearing to Millie quite vulnerable as he uttered the words.

“It’s been unbearable,” she replied earnestly, stroking his face and wishing he would kiss her. “I never want to be parted from you again.”

Ryan looked upon Millie intently. Slowly, he unbuttoned her riding jacket and played his fingers up and down the small buttons of her blouse. Millie’s bosom heaved at his touch.

Ryan slipped his hand beneath her blouse and felt the silky smoothness of her camisole. “No corset today,” he surmised with a suggestive smile.

“Heavens, no!” Millie replied. “How could I possibly ride in one of those contraptions? In fact, I’m rather taken with the idea of wearing trousers to ride. A skirt is so cumbersome,” she continued matter-of-factly, in an effort to ignore the sensation of Ryan’s hand so close to her skin.

“Cumbersome when you will insist on riding in such an unladylike manner,” Ryan said admiringly, smiling at his headstrong mistress as, to her relief and disappointment, he withdrew his hand from her blouse.

“It has its advantages though,” he continued, reaching down to hoist up the folds of heavy fabric.

Millie could formulate no smart responses to his words, so preoccupied was she with the feelings he stirred up; it was maddening how he tantalized her.

Ryan’s hand ran slowly up the inside of Millie’s leg. “Your skin is so soft,” he murmured tenderly.

When he reached the frills of her drawers, Ryan watched Millie seriously. “So soft,” he repeated as his fingers ventured beneath the frills.

“Oh Ryan,” Millie sighed, closing her eyes because the sensation of his touch was so intense.

Ryan leant over and kissed Millie’s lips.

Emboldened, Millie reached out her own hand and grasped hold of Ryan’s riding breeches. “This can’t be wrong,” she said but, opening her eyes, Millie saw the look of alarm on Ryan’s face.

He’d already withdrawn his hand from beneath her skirts and was getting to his knees. “We should be getting back now, Miss Millie,” he announced formally.

“Whatever for?” Millie replied.

“Because if we don’t, I fear we’ll go too far.”

 

  • * *

 

On her return to the Hall, Millie once again encountered Mrs Overton, to be informed that her aunt required her. When she entered the lounge, Millie found her father and Aunt Rose sitting ominously as if they’d been awaiting her return.

“We’ve decided that it would be good for you to have a break from Glassnest, Millicent,” Aunt Rose commenced.

Millie looked at her father, who couldn’t meet her eye.

“I’m travelling back to London in the morning and you shall be accompanying me.”

Millie was aghast. “But why?” she asked, addressing the question to her father.

“Your aunt feels nervous about returning home, given recent developments. I think it will be a comfort to her to have you to stay for a few days.”

Millie instantly recognised this to be the utter nonsense it was. She looked at her father but his gaze remained downcast. “What about Kerry?” she asked feebly.

“I’m sure the groom O’Flynn is quite capable of taking care of the horse,” Rose replied dispassionately.

“But I’m not at all ready to go,” Millie announced more assertively.

“Effie has packed your trunk,” Aunt Rose declared triumphantly, bestowing a cold smile of victory upon her niece.

 

 

Chapter 7

 

Millie sat opposite Aunt Rose in a first class compartment of a steam train bound for London. She kept her gaze steadfastly directed out of the window to avoid making eye contact with Rose. When they’d boarded the train the presence of a businessman alongside them in the carriage had prevented Aunt Rose from talking candidly to Millie but since he’d got off at the last station, Millie now feared that Rose was eager to instigate a discussion she couldn’t have conducted in the presence of Millie’s father.

“Of course you have blown it with the Windham boy,” Rose began as if assuming that Millie had shared the thoughts that preceded the statement.

Millie involuntarily glanced from the window at her aunt but said nothing.

“However, all is not lost Millicent. I have plans, once we get home, to introduce you to a most eligible young surgeon whose uncle is an acquaintance of mine–”

“There’s no need, Aunt Rose,” Millie said tiresomely.

“Tush, Millicent, there is every need–”

“I’ve really no interest in men–”

“No but it’s apparent that what you do have is a wholly unwholesome interest in a common stable lad, which, if unchecked, will be your downfall.” Aunt Rose rested her case.

Millie felt the colour rushing to her cheeks and failed to find words of defence.

“What you need, Millicent, is to meet a real man: a man of society with responsibilities and importance and prospects of greatness.”

Millie looked out of the sooty window at the sombre grey country scene they were passing through. Did Aunt Rose have no sense of the injustice of the class system she was so eager to uphold? Ryan, she knew, could have been a great man, given the right education and opportunities. He was the best man she knew: the kindest and strongest. Why couldn’t her aunt see beyond his status?

“I think we’ll have a dinner tomorrow evening and I’ll invite Richard Sutton and his uncle along. Tonight would be too soon but by tomorrow I shall be organised,” Aunt Rose concluded briskly.

 

  • * *

 

The following evening, Millie descended the staircase of Aunt Rose’s well-appointed town house, wearing her blue chiffon dress for dinner. Aunt Rose had wished her to wear the white, bridal one but Millie had held out for the blue dress, arguing that it was more elegant and made her look more sophisticated in society, but really wanting to wear it as a constant reminder of Ryan. Every time she glanced down at the floating fabric, she remembered the sensation of his strong hands caressing her bare skin.

Millie reached the bottom of the staircase and walked over to the lounge door. From inside it she heard the sound of polite conversation. She could detect her aunt’s commanding voice and a masculine voice of equal force but also a softer female voice and a youthful male one. Taking a deep breath, Millie opened the door to the lounge and walked into the room.

Everybody turned to face her and Aunt Rose gave her a customarily grand introduction. Millie didn’t really heed what Rose was saying. She was immediately transfixed by the tall, slender, dark-haired young man, standing beside the mantelpiece. He was as dark as Ryan was blonde but the curl in his hair reminded her of Ryan’s and she had to admit that he was as handsome as Ryan, although in quite a different way.

“Millicent, allow me to introduce you to Doctor Richard Sutton,” Aunt Rose was saying.

“You know he’s actually a Mister now – now he’s a surgeon, Rose,” the older man corrected.

“Oh nonsense, Uncle! What does it matter?” Richard said dismissively, concentrating his attention upon Millie as he extended his hand to her.

As she took it, Millie was surprised that Richard lifted her hand and placed a kiss upon the back of it. “Miss Millicent, you are every bit as charming as your aunt had led me to believe,” he said playfully.

Millie found herself blushing at the compliment.

“And, if I might be so bold, that dress looks simply ravishing on you.”

 

  • * *

 

As Rose’s dinner drew to a close, with the appearance of the cheeseboard and a decanter of port, Millie reflected that, despite his charm and attention, she had learnt nothing more about Richard Sutton than what she’d been told before she’d met him. The older lady who was much more retiring than Aunt Rose transpired to be his widowed mother, who seemed genuinely devoted to her son but, ultimately, equally elusive. The conversation had, of course, been dominated by Rose and Richard’s uncle but Rose had, as of yet, failed to secure any future audiences with the young man. Millie knew she wouldn’t waste much more time.

“So, Richard, I wonder if you might like to escort my niece to the opera or the ballet this week,” Rose began as her butler poured port into Richard’s glass.

“Nothing would give me greater pleasure but, alas, I’m leaving London for a new position in the Kentish countryside on Tuesday.”

“How unfortunate,” Rose replied, deflated.

Richard smiled at Millie and she had to admit that she herself felt a certain amount of disappointment that she wouldn’t be seeing him again.

It transpired that he was taking a post as surgeon in a hospital being set up in an old country house, to tend to war-wounded soldiers. Already, there were casualties coming back from the Front whose injuries couldn’t be properly dealt with in the field hospitals, it seemed.

Richard talked at length and with great enthusiasm about the challenges that lay ahead of him. Millie felt real admiration to hear all he told her. Aunt Rose looked on disdainfully, annoyed that her plans for her niece had –for the present, at least– been scuppered by the war.

 

  • * *

 

Millie stayed in London with Aunt Rose for what seemed like an eternity but was, in fact, barely a month. During that time she made many requests to return to Glassnest, all of which were denied without good reason. The days were spent visiting galleries and museums, Millie always trying to escape the watchful eye of Rose. The evenings passed alone with Rose or in the company of her aunt’s friends. Millie found the tedium of them unbearable.

She didn’t see Richard Sutton again. It appeared that his story of his new job had been true. Aunt Rose seemed to give up on him and grew increasingly despondent on the subject of finding a suitor for Millie, with her growing realisation that the war really was likely to render her preferred candidates otherwise engaged. For this small mercy Millie was thankful.

Then one day a letter arrived from Sir Randolph. Millie was quick to detect his unmistakable hand on the envelope addressed to her aunt. Over breakfast Rose handed a single sheet of the letter to Millie, whilst digesting the greater part of its contents herself.

In Millie’s portion, Randolph expressed his hope that Millie had enjoyed her time with her aunt and stated his expectation that she would soon return home. Millie’s face lit up at reading these words. She looked from the page over to her aunt, who was rapt in the longer communication that Sir Randolph had addressed to her. Millie watched Rose for some time, intrigued to know what could have taken so long to say to her, when it took so few words in her own note. But she knew it would be imprudent to pry.

Finally Rose folded up the letter and tucked it into the bodice of her dress, an action that confirmed Millie’s suspicion that Rose didn’t wish her to see it.

“Papa says I may go home now, Aunt Rose,” Millie said expectantly.

“Then I imagine you can go home, Millicent,” Rose replied coolly and she looked at the girl with what Millie could only describe as self-satisfaction. Something in Randolph’s communication had pleased her enormously.

“May I be excused? I’d like to go and start packing. Perhaps I can catch a train this afternoon.”

“Perhaps you can, Millicent,” Rose concluded equivocally.

 

 

Chapter 8

 

On the evening when Millie returned to Glassnest, her happiness at being home again was immediately tempered by the strange sensation she got that everybody was withholding something from her. Her father greeted her warmly but, following a light dinner that the two of them ate together, seemed very keen that she should retire to bed after her long journey. When Millie insisted that she wasn’t tired and wanted to know what had been happening in her absence, he claimed that he himself was fatigued from riding that afternoon and left her sitting alone before the fire in the drawing room.

At the fireside, Millie had considered venturing out into the night and over to Ryan’s cottage but something in the understated manner of the welcome she’d received in the house caused her to fear a lukewarm reception from Ryan too.

The following morning Millie caught a fleeting glimpse of Effie scurrying into the kitchens when she went downstairs for breakfast but didn’t have the opportunity to enquire why the girl hadn’t come to see whether she wanted help dressing, as was her custom.

Whilst eating breakfast, Millie spied Ryan through the window of the dining room. He was walking around the house, bound, most likely, for the stables. “Maybe I’ll have a ride on Kerry today, Daddy,” Millie suggested to Randolph.

“I’m sorry darling, that’s not possible,” he replied. “Ryan’s tied up with some tasks I set him, to do with the forthcoming hunts. He won’t have time to saddle up Kerry, I’m afraid. In fact, I’d prefer it if you didn’t disturb him today.”

“Oh,” Millie said, dissatisfied but fully aware there was no point in disputing her father’s claims and wishes.

And so after breakfast she went back to her room and sat gazing through the window, out, over the vast expanse of the place that had, until recently, been familiar to her but now, all of a sudden, felt hostile.

At about eleven o’clock Millie decided there was nothing for it but to go down to the kitchens. There was one person, she knew, in the household who couldn’t help but at least hint at what had changed during her absence.

As she’d hoped, Millie found Mrs Overton by herself in the kitchen, perusing the daily newspaper, whilst the other house staff were going about their business. Mrs Overton made no attempt to disguise the fact that she was having a self-sanctioned break from her duties. Millie smiled to witness the no-nonsense lady seated at the large, sturdy kitchen table.

“Good morning, Miss Millicent. How can I help you?” Mrs Overton asked.

“I’m feeling a bit peckish, Mrs O. I just wondered if Cook’s baked anything that could tide me over till lunchtime.”

“Not like you to be hungry between meals,” Mrs Overton observed.

“No,” Millie agreed half-heartedly.

“Still, I imagine your journey yesterday must have upset your routine.”

“I think so,” Millie said.

Mrs Overton got up from her chair and disappeared into the pantries. Millie took a seat at the table, with her back to the generous open fire that glowed in the kitchen at all hours throughout the winter months. She enjoyed the sensation of its warmth. The rest of the house had felt cold since her return.

Upon her re-entry to the kitchen, carrying a plate with a tea-towel draped over it, Mrs Overton raised her eyebrows to see Millie installed at the table. “Chelsea buns,” she said, then asking, “Would you like a cup of tea to go with it?”

“Oh yes please,” Millie said eagerly.

She watched Mrs Overton prepare the tea, unsure how to instigate her enquiry as to what had been going on, without it sounding too obvious.

“No doubt Sir Randolph has told you the good news,” Mrs Overton said, pre-empting Millie’s questions.

“Good news?” Millie asked, trying to sound casual.

“Effie and Ryan,” Mrs Overton said.

“Effie and Ryan?” Millie asked, confused.

“He hasn’t said anything? I suppose he’s got so much else on his mind.”

“What’s happened?” Millie asked, feeling uneasy in the pit of her stomach.

“We’ll soon be hearing wedding bells here at Glassnest, Miss. Effie and Ryan are engaged.”

Engaged?” Millie said, unable to hide her alarm at the revelation.

“Isn’t it wonderful? I can’t think of two young people better suited. Why, they’ve both practically grown up here. Especially for Effie – the poor girl hasn’t a soul in the world to call her own but now she’ll have a loving husband.”

Millie stared down at the bun on the plate before her. “I’m sorry, Mrs Overton but I shouldn’t eat this–”

“Surely you’re not worrying about your figure – a slip of a thing like you.”

“It’s not long till lunch now, anyway,” Millie murmured.

“But you must have a drink of your tea, Miss,” Mrs Overton insisted, pushing Millie’s cup across the table to her, before taking up her own seat once more. “You’re as white as a sheet, Miss Millicent. I shouldn’t wonder you’re ailing for something. You see, that’s why you’d never catch me going to that London. Not if you paid me.”

Millie sipped at her hot tea.

From across the table, Mrs Overton, sticky bun in one hand, tea cup in the other, watched her attentively. “Your hand’s shaking, Miss Millicent. I think you must have caught a chill.”

“I shall be quite alright, Mrs Overton. I’m warming already with the fire. Thank you for the tea. That’s helping too.”

But it didn’t escape the older woman’s notice that, despite her words, Millie’s shaking hands only became more pronounced.

“I might just turn around to face the fire,” Millie said, setting down her cup on the table and adjusting her chair, in an effort to hide her tears from the housekeeper’s watchful gaze.

 

  • * *

 

Once she’d managed to escape Mrs Overton and return to her room to compose herself, Millie set out, bound for the stables to find Ryan. It didn’t take long; he was there in Kerry’s stall, changing the straw. Randolph’s supposed tasks had obviously been a decoy.

Millie crept silently into the stall and stood watching Ryan until he saw her.

“Millie!” he exclaimed, rising from the stooped position he’d held to fork the old bedding. He looked anxious.

Millie’s bloodshot eyes looked on him blankly as she awaited an explanation.

“I didn’t see you,” he said feebly.

“No,” she replied.

“How are you?” he asked.

“Well I’m not engaged to be married, if that’s what you mean,” she blurted spontaneously.

“Millie,” he said in a placatory tone, as he put the fork to one side and went towards her.

“I don’t understand it,” she said.

“Effie’s like a sister to me,” he explained, placing his hand on Millie’s arm.

Exactly! A sister is not a wife.”

“She and I are from the same background. It would never have worked with us, Millicent–”

“I just don’t believe you,” Millie cried, unable to maintain her composure. “You don’t love Effie. She doesn’t love you. I love you and you love me.”

He shook his head hopelessly. “I’m sorry,” he said, unable to look her in the eye.

Millie longed to hold him – she had longed to hold him the whole time she’d been detained in London. But she knew he was out of bounds now and she sensed he wasn’t going to add insult to injury by making an advance towards her.

So they stood awkwardly for a time, Ryan’s hand on Millie’s arm, stroking her like an injured pet, neither of them able to look at the other but neither able to break away.

Eventually it was Millie who ended the encounter, returning to her room to weep again and agonise over this confounding situation.

 

  • * *

 

As Millie opened the door to her bedroom, she heard someone take a sharp intake of breath. Effie was there, making her bed. The two girls stared at one another, before Effie curtseyed and, bowing her head, said, “Miss Millicent.”

Millie said nothing in response but closed the door behind her and walked into the centre of the large room.

Effie awkwardly continued to straighten the sheets as Millie stood watching her.

“Leave off doing that, please, Effie.”

“Would you like me to go Miss?” Effie asked with forced innocence.

“No Effie. You and I need to talk. Sit down.” Millie gestured for Effie to take a seat on the bed and then sat beside her when she did. “This thing with you and Ryan,” Millie began, “I’m not going to congratulate you because I know it’s not what it seems. What’s going on, Effie?”

Effie looked pale and trembled. “I don’t understand you Miss,” she complained.

“You don’t love Ryan, Effie, and he doesn’t love you. There must be some reason behind this marriage. It’s a sham.” She said it damningly and then worried that she might have got it all wrong. Maybe they did love one another. Maybe she just couldn’t accept that Ryan didn’t love her.

But Effie had started to cry uncontrollably.

Millie put her arm around Effie and held her close. “There must be something wrong, Effie, because, if you and Ryan were really in love, you’d be happy.”

Effie sobbed, struggling to get words out.

Millie shushed her and held her and when Effie had eventually regained her composure she said, “I’m having a baby.”

“But not Ryan’s,” Millie surmised instantly.

Effie was silent, staring blankly at Millie. Then she said, “He says that nobody need know. If we get married quickly enough, people won’t realise–”

“But it’s not his baby, is it, Effie?”

Effie began to sob again.

“Effie, whose child is it? You have to tell me.”

But Effie broke from Millie’s embrace, rose from the bed and fled from the room, hiding her tearful eyes as she went.

Millie sat on the bed for some time, struggling to make sense of it all.

 

  • * *

 

Within the hour, Millie was running along the woodland path that wound towards Ryan’s cottage, trying to catch up with him as he strode ahead.

She’d gone out to the stables to find him but had been informed by John that Sir Randolph had allowed him to finish for the day and she had just missed him.

She’d run from the stables and, as soon as he had come into sight, called to him, but he’d ignored her and quickened his pace.

He was now approaching the house and Millie knew that if his grandma was inside (which she most probably was) they couldn’t discuss things properly in there, so, in a last bid to arrest him, she cried out, “I know Effie’s pregnant!”

Sure enough, her words stopped Ryan in his tracks. He turned and began to walk back towards Millie.

She came to a halt and waited for him to reach her, striving to regulate her breathing as she stood.

“Who’s the father of her baby?” Millie asked as Ryan loomed before her.

“I am,” he said.

She shook her head. “Impossible. You’re a Catholic.”

Ryan stared into Millie’s eyes.

She felt certain she hadn’t got this wrong. “Remember what you told me, Ryan? I know you wouldn’t have done things with Effie that you weren’t willing to do with me. You’re a good man.”

He said nothing.

“If it was some boy on the estate –or in the village– then surely she ought to marry them, not you.”

Ryan was shaking his head. “You don’t understand, Millie,” he said.

“Then tell me,” she cried, despairing at being shut out of their secret.

He sighed and looked compromised. “I swore I wouldn’t say.”

“Ryan, I don’t think either of you are happy. If you and Effie marry, you won’t be happy together. You can’t be when this is the reason.”

“Ben Windham,” he said suddenly.

Millie was aghast.

“So now you see why it’s such a mess.”

Millie nodded solemnly.

“Effie can’t appeal to him – he’d laugh it off,” Ryan elaborated.

“He’s going away to fight soon anyway,” Millie agreed.

“A fine officer he’ll make,” Ryan said sarcastically.

“So you’ve decided to save Effie’s reputation.”

“I’ve always been fond of her.”

“But Ryan, that’s not the basis for a marriage.”

He laughed cynically. Millie realised she’d never detected a hint of cynicism in him before. “And what is? Our unfulfilled passion?” he asked.

“I just know I love you,” Millie said softly. “I know what that feels like. Nothing else compares.”

Millie stretched out her arms and placed her hands on Ryan’s shoulders, uncertain whether he would accept her embrace.

Closing his eyes, Ryan pulled her to him and held her close.

“And I’ve been longing to do this for the last month,” Millie said, reaching up to kiss Ryan’s cheek.

She found that her lips were soon met by Ryan’s and knew then that his feelings hadn’t really changed.

“I didn’t know why you left. I thought you were trying to get away from me,” he said when the kiss finally ceased.

“No! Never! Rose suspected something and tried to keep us apart. It must only have been when Randolph told her about your engagement that she thought it was safe to let me come home.”

Ryan was shaking his head but smiling lovingly at Millie. “What a mess,” he said.

“A fine mess indeed,” she agreed.

“We can’t stand out here all afternoon. Come inside and have some tea.”

“But your grandma–”

“Will be thrilled to see you. Just come in and warm yourself by the fire for a while,” Ryan said, kissing Millie again. “Stay with me for a bit,” he said persuasively.

Millie nodded and smiled despite everything, stealing one more lingering kiss before they headed for the cottage.

 

  • * *

 

My Dear Millicent,

 

Whilst I read your letter with interest, I could not help but suspect that many of the assertions made in it were the figment of your over-ripe imagination.

If the notion of some dalliance between Mr Windham and your father’s maid was not ridiculous enough in itself, your further claim that he is the father of her unborn child is certainly nothing short of outrageous.

As to your unquestioning belief in the version of events that the O’Flynn boy has fed you, this is just another facet of your all-too-frequently displayed tendency to romanticise the lives of the lower orders. Of course, O’Flynn would have you believe him to be heroic. The truth is more likely that he himself is the father of Effie’s baby.

Even if he is not, it strikes me that the best solution to this muddle is the one that Effie and Ryan have already determined. Namely, that they should marry. Your meddling in this matter is, not only unbefitting of a young lady of your station, but also deeply unhelpful.

Therefore, Millicent, I will not grant your wish that Effie should come to London to reside in my house for the term of her confinement. You must leave this matter well alone, Millicent. It is none of your business.

 

Fond regards,

Rose

 

After reading her aunt’s letter, Millie realised that the only course of action open to her was to carry out what she had been loath to do earlier. She had hoped that Rose would agree to be complicit in her plan, to the extent that Randolph himself need never know about Effie’s pregnancy. Now, her aunt was likely to tell him anyway, and the only thing she could try was to appeal to him, in the hope that he would not only believe her, but, further, share her view of the situation.

Millie knocked on the door to Randolph’s study. Instantly her father called, “Enter.”

Millie slowly opened the door. Randolph looked up from his papers.

“Ah Millicent, how can I help you?”

To Randolph’s surprise, Millie drew up a seat to his desk. The girl looked grave.

“Is something the matter?” Randolph asked.

“It’s about Effie,” Millie said softly.

“Yes?” Randolph replied.

Millie thought the best way was just to state the facts plainly. “Effie and Ryan are only getting married because Effie is expecting a baby.”

Randolph raised his eyebrows.

“But it isn’t Ryan’s baby. It’s Ben Windham’s baby.”

“Millicent!” Randolph exclaimed.

“Effie and Ryan aren’t in love so they shouldn’t have to get married. It isn’t Ryan’s fault.” She hesitated. “It isn’t really Effie’s fault either. You know what I told you about Ben Windham, Daddy. He’s a brute.”

“Millicent, on what authority do you have this information?” Randolph asked, alarmed.

“From Effie and Ryan.” She paused. “They wouldn’t lie, Daddy. You know them both. Neither of them would ever lie to us.”

Randolph looked sombrely down at his desk.

“I had appealed to Aunt Rose,” Millie continued. “I asked her if Effie could go to live with her to have the baby. That way no one need know about the baby and Effie and Ryan needn’t get married.”

Randolph looked up, asking, “And what did she say to that?”

“She didn’t believe me and she said Ryan and Effie were best off getting married.”

“Well she has a point–”

“She would say that because she’s never been in love,” Millie argued, becoming agitated. “They don’t love each other, Daddy. You understand that. People shouldn’t get married unless they’re in love.”

“Ryan would make her a damned site better husband than Ben Windham,” Randolph said with the nearest thing he was likely to exhibit to anger.

“But she doesn’t love Ryan. He doesn’t love her. Another woman –other women– will love Ryan. Surely you understand that.”

Randolph studied his daughter’s countenance, remembering what Rose had suggested concerning Millicent’s feelings for the groom. From her outburst just now, he tended to think that Rose might be right. “Leave it with me, Millicent. I shall think on it,” he said.

“I want you to try to convince Rose to have Effie to stay. She can work for Rose for as long as she’s able.”

“Yes, alright, I’ll think about it,” Randolph repeated.

 

 

Chapter 9

 

Millie had acted in the heat of the moment when she’d written to Aunt Rose, and it was only after she made her plea to Randolph that she actually informed Ryan of all she had done. She told him as they sat together, huddled over a wood stove, in a shed that Ryan and some of the groundsmen used as a mess. She thought he’d be pleased.

“I take it you’ve discussed all this with Effie,” he said when Millie had finished explaining things to him.

“With Effie?” Millie asked absently.

“Yes, if you’re proposing that Effie should go to live with your Aunt Rose you need to have her agreement.”

Millie frowned. “Well I assumed she’d realise it’s for the best.”

Ryan looked forlorn rather than angry. “Millie, it’s not really for you to decide on Effie’s future.”

“But this solves all the problems–”

“It doesn’t really solve hers. What about after the baby is born?”

“I hadn’t really thought that far ahead,” Millie admitted. “I mean she could always give it up–”

“Millie, you’ve no idea how Effie feels. How can you assume she’d want to give her baby away?” Now he did sound angry.

“I’m sorry,” Millie was quick to say. “I mean, I suppose she could also keep it. It would be easier to conceal it in London than here.” She stumbled and finally confessed, “Oh I don’t really know.”

“Shall I talk to Effie?” he asked, in a gesture to make the peace.

“No, I will. You’re right; I should never have gone ahead without consulting her. It was wrong of me.”

Ryan stroked her arm and pulled her closer to him as the small fire in front of them flickered. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to be harsh.”

“No, you’re absolutely right. I can’t decide her life for her.” Millie paused and then sighed. “Anyway, it’s unlikely anything will come of it. Even if I have convinced Daddy, I’m doubtful he’ll have any influence over Aunt Rose.”

“We’ll see,” said Ryan. He realised he needed to lighten the mood – and the kettle was boiling. “Now shall I make you that cup of tea?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Millie replied.

Ryan stood up and began to prepare things over the stove.

Millie watched him closely. “You’re sure none of the other men will come in here at this time?”

“It’s unlikely.”

Millie couldn’t help but laugh at how casually he said it. “And if someone did, you’d be found to be fraternising not only with the boss’s daughter but with a young lady other than your fiancée!” she remarked.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I have nothing to hide. I’m completely innocent,” he said with a smile as he handed Millie a mug and took his seat beside her.

She sidled up to Ryan and rested her head on his shoulder. She was tempted to ask him how it would end but she knew that would be foolish. They could neither of them possibly know how things would end. Instead she said, “It’s quite cosy in here, isn’t it?”

“Cosy because you’ve still got on your big coat!” he replied.

“But the fire’s nice,” she said, taking a sip of her tea.

“It’s somewhere to retreat to,” he said.

Millie lifted her head from Ryan’s shoulder and, looking into his eyes, said, “So I finally have my tea; do I now get that kiss you promised me?”

He had barely bent his head and granted her wish before the latch of the door to the shed could be heard being lifted.

Millie and Ryan pulled apart as John entered. “Good morning Miss Millicent,” he said, with evident surprise to find the young lady in the men’s mess.

“Good morning John,” she replied brightly. “Would you like some tea? Ryan’s just brewed a pot.”

John accepted and then couldn’t help but remark, “This is no place for you to be taking your elevenses.”

“Oh I don’t know. I was just saying to Ryan how snug it is in here – I’m quite envious of you all.”

John laughed wryly and, having poured himself a mug of tea, sat down beside them. “If I had the choice I’d sooner be in that there kitchen of Mistress Overton’s,” he observed.

“Hmm,” Millie agreed. “Well,” she said, finishing her drink and handing her empty cup to Ryan, “next time I come to visit, perhaps I’ll smuggle out some of Cook’s famous Chelsea buns.”

“We’d find that very welcome, Miss,” John said as Millie rose to go.

She bade him good day, Ryan accompanying her to the door of the shed.

“Thank you Ryan,” she said formally, tempted to giggle at the scene.

“You’re welcome Miss Millicent,” he replied.

“Any time you’re passing, Miss, feel free to drop in on us again,” John called with a hint of sarcasm.

Now Ryan was stifling laughter too. He held out his hand to her and her fingers brushed his before she disappeared in the direction of the house.

As Ryan closed the door and came back into the shed, John was having the last laugh. “If I were you, O’Flynn,” he said, “I should be wary of that one. She’s got you wrapped around her little finger – and you betrothed to Effie and all,” he chuckled.

Ryan tried to laugh too. He quickly washed up the cups and then said to John, “I’d best get back to it.”

 

  • * *

 

Dear Millicent,

 

I hope you do not interpret this missive as my agreement to your scheme. Believe me, I consider this to be one of your father’s most foolhardy undertakings to date. Furthermore, I shall not permit your father’s maid to reside in my own property – I have no need of another servant.

However, fate has smiled upon you, Millicent, in the unlikely form of Richard Sutton’s uncle. I would be the first to agree that he is a most atypical philanthropist but it would appear that he and his lady wife have something of a penchant for saving fallen women – moreover they are in need of a housemaid. And so your little Effie can go to work for them and they are willing to allow her, not only to have the child under their roof, but further to keep it there, if she so wishes.

I reiterate, none of this has my approval, but it would appear the times are changing.

 

Regards,

Your Aunt Rose

 

  • * *

 

Millie knew the only way to approach Effie was to catch her at work. At a time in the morning when she predicted Effie would be engaged in making her bed, she snuck quietly into her room. The bed was still unmade but from the en suite bathroom, Millie heard the toilet being flushed and then the taps of the sink running. Moments later Effie emerged, looking pale. “Sorry Miss,” she instinctively said upon encountering Millie.

“There’s no need to apologise. Ryan said you’ve been feeling rotten. Poor thing. Is it still as bad?”

“Yes,” Effie admitted. “But they say it should end in a month or so. And it’s only in the morning that I feel so awful. It eases as the day goes on.”

“But otherwise you’re well?”

“Oh yes, Miss – thank you.”

“Good,” Millie replied, wondering how to proceed.

“I should get on with the bed,” Effie suggested.

“No,” Millie said. “Come and sit a while with me.”

She took a seat on the unmade bed and bade Effie sit beside her.

“My Aunt Rose has a friend in London who is looking for a maid,” she began.

Effie looked up at her.

“They’re good people and they know your situation.” Millie paused. “If you went to work for them you could keep the baby – or give it up if you preferred.” She stopped, realising she sounded pre-emptive. “What do you think, Effie?” she asked tentatively.

“What would we tell people about me and Ryan?” Effie asked.

“You need say nothing. After you’ve gone Ryan will tell people that you both realised you had rushed into the engagement and that you’ve gone to London to make it easier for him.”

“And what will I tell people in London?”

“That your husband is fighting on the Western Front.”

“But that’s deceitful.”

“Not in so many words,” Millie said, venturing carefully. “I mean, the father of your child is at war–”

Effie looked anxious. “And how will I account for him never coming back?”

Millie hesitated before saying, “Many men won’t come back, Effie. Nobody will be surprised.”

“Miss, that’s awful – you’re suggesting I should fake his death?”

Millie couldn’t reply in words.

“You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you?” Effie’s tone was rather bitter.

“I know you don’t want to leave Glassnest,” Millie said. “But this means you’d be free – and so would Ryan.”

Effie was thoughtful. “And you can vouch that they’re decent people and they’ll let me keep the baby?”

“Yes,” said Millie.

“Then I’ll go,” Effie said. “I’ll go as soon as you want, Miss.”

 

  • * *

 

Millie skulked in the barn, awaiting Ryan. After what seemed like an eternity, he entered the old building, taking care that nobody saw him in the waning evening light.

Millie rushed towards him and he opened his arms wide to her. “I thought you’d never come,” she said.

“I’m only ten minutes late,” he replied, laughing at her insecurity. “I couldn’t get away from Ma Overton.”

“Well, you’re here now,” Millie said, kissing him feverishly.

“Come and sit on the bales,” Ryan instructed.

They did so and Ryan pulled Millie to him, stroking the arm that was swathed in a shawl.

She shivered. “This isn’t the nicest place to meet,” she said.

“No but it’s probably the safest at this time of day,” Ryan said, smoothing and kissing her hair.

“And I wanted to see you before I go to Rose’s,” Millie continued.

“I don’t understand why you have to go,” Ryan said.

“Effie wants me to escort her. It’s a very daunting journey for her. She’s never been away from the village before – never mind to London.”

“But why does it have to be you?”

“Because I know her situation–”

Ryan looked uneasy.

“Why are you worrying?” Millie asked him.

“Because I remember what happened last time you went to London,” he replied.

“Oh but it’s different now,” Millie said confidently. “I have the support of Daddy this time. And, anyway, this has nothing to do with you.”

Ryan looked deeply into her eyes and stroked the hair away from her cheek, knowing that her final assertion was false.

“Cheer up,” Millie said. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

Her insistence didn’t convince Ryan. He took her in his arms and held her almost too tightly.

“There’s a danger you could become possessive, Mr O’Flynn,” Millie said, in truth overwhelmed by his devotion.

But her flippant talk had no effect upon him. There was something wrong, Ryan knew. Any scheme that relied upon the benevolence of Aunt Rose was sure to be flawed.

“But since you obviously think this is such a momentous occasion, maybe you should give me a going-away present,” Millie suggested.

“I have a couple of sugar lumps that Mrs Overton gave me for the horses in my pocket–” he offered.

“No, silly. I don’t mean that kind of present,” Millie said suggestively, climbing up to sit astride him and beginning to unbutton his shirt.

“I think I know the kind of thing you have in mind,” Ryan said, removing Millie’s shawl, to discover that she wore a loose dress beneath it.

“You can practically just lift this thing off,” she said, referring to the dress. “It’s in the new style.”

“Very convenient,” Ryan replied, hitching up the dress over her head as she raised her arms.

He gazed at Millie’s fair skin.

“Do you like my silk chemise?” she asked him.

“You know I do,” Ryan replied, enraptured.

“But it’s not as soft as your skin–” Millie said, breaking off to place a kiss on the shoulder she had revealed by pulling off his shirt.

“Are you saying I’m not masculine enough for you, Miss Millie?” Ryan replied with mock offence in his voice.

“Oh, I think you’ll do for now, O’Flynn,” Millie replied, dropping her head to kiss the soft skin of his chest.

“You can kiss me Ryan,” she said a while later, slipping the straps of her chemise from her shoulders, to reveal more of herself to him.

Ryan cupped her breasts in his hands and felt the contour of them beneath the silk. He traced a course of kisses across her bosom but Millie knew he’d never reveal her tender flesh to his eyes. “You drive me insane,” she said to him.

Looking up, he smiled at her, half-devil, half-angel and said, “Don’t stay away too long this time – please.”

 

 

Chapter 10

 

Randolph and Millie stood waiting for Effie at the bottom of Glassnest’s grand staircase.

“What on earth is keeping the girl?” Millie complained. “If we don’t get going soon Daddy we’ll miss the train.”

“Be patient, Millicent,” Randolph urged. “This is probably a very emotional morning for her.” He paused then added, “And Mrs Overton is up there now to chivvy her along.”

Millie huffed but as she did so Mrs Overton appeared on the landing, instructing John and one of the younger men in carrying down a large trunk.

“Good lord!” Millie exclaimed. “Surely Effie doesn’t have that many possessions?”

“Oh,” Randolph began vaguely, “your Aunt Rose asked for some drapes to be sent through to her.”

Millie looked up at her father dubiously and tutted. The men brought the trunk downstairs and then scaled the flight again, soon reappearing with Effie’s much smaller, lighter trunk, shortly after which a tearful Effie emerged, the generous arm of Mrs Overton draped comfortingly about her slender form.

“Now, now, young lady,” Mrs Overton was saying, “there’s no need for tears. This is a very exciting day for you. Many’s the time I myself have yearned to go to that London.”

Millie raised her eyebrows upon hearing this nonsense. “I’m sorry to rush you, Effie,” she said, “but we really do need to get going.”

Effie nodded and then burst into sobs as Mrs Overton fully embraced her. Once she’d released the girl from her ample bosom, Randolph himself gave Effie a muted hug and kissed her cheek, saying, “Be a good girl, Effie. I know you will.”

How they ever got out of the Hall and onto the station platform in time, Millie didn’t know but, after a rather long and very quiet journey with Effie, they were met by Aunt Rose’s man at the city station, and then, before Millie knew it, she was once again standing on the hearth of her aunt’s austere drawing room, with a glum Effie beside her, the two of them awaiting an address from the distinguished lady.

“I should start by repeating what I have already imparted to Millicent by way of a letter. Namely, that neither of you should interpret my actions as an approval of this scheme. Euphemia, you have behaved foolishly, to say the least and I myself would not be willing to have you under my roof, given your poor judgement.” She paused, then continued, “However, fortunately for you, others are more forgiving. You shall stay here tonight and tomorrow you will be collected by the Suttons.”

She paused for long enough for Effie to mumble a half-hearted, “Thank you, Ma’am.”

“Shall I return to Glassnest tomorrow?” Millie asked hopefully.

Rose directed her steady gaze at the girl. “Not immediately, Millicent,” she said.

“But I have no clothes,” Millie said casually.

“Not quite so,” Rose replied.

Millie was puzzled.

“Effie, your presence is required no longer. Run along to the kitchen and ask Mansell for some dinner. After that I advise you to get an early night.”

Effie left the room with a barely audible acknowledgement of her instructions and a guilty glance towards Millie.

“Sit down Millicent,” Rose ordered.

Millie did her aunt’s bidding hesitantly.

“You do have clothes. I instructed Effie to pack you a trunk too.”

Millie shot her an angry glance. The worst was not her manipulation or Effie’s complicity. Neither of those things was so surprising. But she suspected that her father must have been in on it too. She was determined not to rise to it but she needed confirmation of her fears. “And did you get your curtains?” she asked calmly.

Rose’s blank look verified her worst suspicion. “Oh sorry, I must have got it wrong,” Millie said dismissively.

“You shall be staying here for a time, Millicent,” Rose continued.

Millie knew Rose was expecting –indeed, hoping for– opposition to that plan. She was determined not to give her the satisfaction. “Then might we see Doctor Sutton while I’m here?” she asked brightly.

“He’s out of town, you remember?” Rose replied.

“But surely he gets some time off, Aunt,” Millie pursued. “When his uncle comes to fetch Effie tomorrow, we could enquire, couldn’t we?”

She witnessed the look of surprise on her aunt’s face and was pleased by it. “That’s what you ought to do,” Millie continued animatedly. “Ask his uncle to bring Richard to dinner soon, Aunt Rose. It’ll give us an opportunity to find out how Effie’s getting on too,” Millie concluded, beaming outwardly but feeling inner rage that Ryan’s misgivings about her aunt’s motives had not, after all, been unfounded.

 

  • * *

 

In the morning, just before the Suttons were due to arrive to collect Effie, Millie scaled the narrow flight of spiralling stairs that led to the attic room in which the serving girl had passed the night.

She found Effie dressed in her only smart outfit, surveying her small bump in the full-length mirror that Aunt Rose had consigned to the room.

“They’ll be here soon,” Millie said.

“I know,” Effie replied. “Do you need me to come down now?”

Millie knew very well that Effie was trying to avoid Rose until the last possible moment – she feared her disapproval.

“In a minute,” Millie said, “but before we go downstairs, there’s something I want to give you.”

She produced from her pocket the wedding ring that had been her mother’s and offered it to Effie.

“I can’t accept this, Miss,” Effie complained.

“Yes you can Effie and I’m determined that you shall have it,” Millie said firmly.

“But if it belonged to her ladyship–”

“She would have wanted you to have it every bit as much as I do,” Millie insisted.

Effie was silent as Millie slipped the ring onto her finger. “There you are, it fits perfectly,” Millie said brightly. Then more soberly she continued, “Wear this, Effie, and people won’t question that you’re married.” From below she could hear the distant ring of the doorbell; there wasn’t much time left. “It looks plain enough,” Millie said, “but it’s a valuable ring. If you’re ever in trouble, Effie, sell it and use the money to return to Glassnest – with the child. You know you will always have a place there – my father would never see you destitute and I would always welcome you home with open arms.”

Seeing tears in the girl’s eyes, Millie sensed that it wouldn’t be long before she too began to cry. But, knowing that Rose didn’t permit displays of affection –let alone between the gentry and their staff– she hugged Effie there in the attic room and then tried fruitlessly to wipe her eyes dry as they descended the stairs.

 

 

Chapter 11

 

After an arduous week spent in the company of Rose, Millie’s life was brightened by the appearance of Doctor Richard Sutton, his aunt and uncle and his mother at Aunt Rose’s London residence.

Millie couldn’t help but radiate in his warm and affable presence and even indulged Aunt Rose by agreeing to wear the white bridal dress that her aunt so approved of. She was a little disappointed that Richard didn’t comment on the dress and felt that, in general, whilst he was as jovial and conversational as before, he was, somehow, keeping his distance from her as the evening progressed.

Richard’s uncle was his slightly pompous self; his mother quiet as before. It was his aunt who was the revelation to Millie. She appeared to be what Randolph would have called a bohemian – a most unlikely match for her husband. But Millie instantly warmed to her and was delighted when, upon enquiring after Effie, the eminent lady responded, not with a timid acknowledgement of the disgraced girl, but with glowing praise for her virtues. Effie was, Mrs Sutton declared, “A treasure,” adding, “Your father must feel deprived of a valuable asset to his household, Millicent.”

Millie saw her Aunt Rose raise her eyebrows at this comment and so responded to it with hearty and enthusiastic agreement.

“Hers is a pure soul, thoroughly untainted by modern pretensions,” Mrs Sutton went on, at which comment Aunt Rose audibly tutted her disdain.

“Effie is a breath of fresh air,” Millie conceded and was glad to see that Richard was suppressing laughter at the exchange and the indignation it aroused in Rose – he was obviously in the know where Effie’s condition was concerned.

Rose had had enough of this idle chit-chat. It occurred to Millie that her aunt thoroughly disliked Mrs Sutton and had much preferred the previous engagement with the distinguished family, when the lady had not been present due to a bout of influenza.

Having ascertained that the kitchen was ready to serve dinner, Rose encouraged her guests to finish their aperitifs and make their way to the dining room. To Millie’s chagrin, this proved a shrewd move on Rose’s part, the conversation during the meal being dominated by Rose herself and Richard’s uncle. But the food was good and Millie enjoyed the opportunity to sit next to Richard and hear all about his work at the hospital. She sensed he withheld many of the less palatable details from her but she admired the care he demonstrated for his wounded patients, both officers and regular soldiers. During the course of the evening, Millie’s conviction that Richard was a thoroughly good man became even stronger.

After dinner Mr Sutton called for a game of whist, whilst Aunt Rose stated her preference for bridge. It was a source of endless bemusement to Millie that Rose, so abstemious when it came to other forms of indulgence, was such a passionate and competitive player of cards. When Rose was in residence at Glassnest, Millie frequently found herself roped in –alongside an equally reluctant Mrs Overton– to games of bridge with Rose and her father. Furthermore, her aunt was in the business of betting money –albeit modest amounts– on the outcome of the game.

Richard Sutton was quick to point out that, as both games proposed required only four players, he and Millie might take a turn in the garden whilst the cards got underway.

“But, my dear, it is pitch black and freezing out there tonight,” Rose complained involuntarily, before considering the implication of the young man’s suggestion and relenting with, “But you are both young and hardy so there can be no harm in it – be sure to wear your coats!”

And with nobody else objecting to the doctor’s scheme, Millie found herself wrapped in a heavy cloak of Rose’s, standing beside Richard, looking up at the stars, before she knew it.

He began pointing out constellations to Millie and she had to admit, it was romantic. As he spoke, Millie could see Richard’s breath condensing in the bright moonlight.

But as soon as the doctor was convinced, by the low hum of voices from within, that they were quite alone and would not be interrupted, he turned to face her and said, with some urgency, “I needed to speak with you in private, Millicent, upon a matter that is rather delicate.”

“Yes?” Millie replied uneasily.

“I don’t wish to offend you, but when my uncle reported that you appeared so eager to see me again, I became concerned that you might harbour expectations that I am unable to fulfil.”

Millie began to feel embarrassed and was glad that Richard couldn’t possibly see her reddening cheeks in the moonlit night.

He continued. “Believe me, Millie, if I were free I should consider you a most attractive girl but I’m not free–”

“Please,” Millie interrupted, “I’m sorry if you’ve misunderstood me, Richard. But your fears are quite unfounded.” She was careful not to refer explicitly to what those fears might be – it was all just too humiliating.

“I should explain,” he went on, as if eager to share with her, “that I am betrothed to a young lady called Margaret – a nurse at the hospital.”

Millie listened attentively.

“My family know nothing of my engagement – they cannot. Margaret is the daughter of a grocer and they would never approve the match–”

“Can you be sure?” Millie asked. “Your aunt seems to be one of the most liberal-minded people I’ve ever met!”

“She, perhaps, but my uncle would never agree to our marriage – and my mother will always go along with him.”

“Doesn’t your aunt have influence over him? She seems to have won him over where Effie’s concerned–”

“They’re childless, Millie. They couldn’t have children of their own. My aunt is over the moon at the prospect of having a baby in the house – however dubious its beginnings. And my uncle is eager to indulge her.”

“I see,” Millie said.

“So you needn’t worry about your little Effie, Millicent. Rest assured, her baby will want for nothing and be thoroughly spoilt by its mother’s employers.”

Millie smiled to hear this.

“But for me, my uncle’s overbearing interest in my career and standing has negative implications. It’s compounded by the fact that my own father died so long ago. Uncle sees me as his son and heir and is determined that I shall marry to advance the status of the family.”

Millie recognised his situation only too well. “What will you do?” she asked softly.

“Well, the hospital is the best means of Margaret and I being together without judgement. We met some two years ago,” he explained, “and fell instantly in love.”

He smiled as he said it and Millie felt a pang at the unavoidable remembrance of Ryan.

“It’s awful to say,” Richard continued, “but, in a way, the war has been good for us, enabling us to be together.”

“Yes,” Millie agreed.

“And I can’t really see beyond it,” Richard mused. “It seems interminable already and it’s been, what?–”

“Barely three months,” Millie replied.

“Yes,” he said. “But I hope to become very skilled in surgery and to then set up my own practice. Once I can be completely independent of the family money, they can’t stop me from marrying whomever I choose.”

Millie gazed up at him, looking to the heavens, lost in his own plans. She admired his determination but couldn’t help but reflect that it was so much harder for her as a woman, deprived –as she necessarily was– of an occupation. “I wish you well, Doctor Sutton,” she said, smiling at him. Millie was pleasantly surprised that her comment recalled him from his reverie and resulted in him, not only returning her smile, but also placing an affectionate peck upon her cheek.

“Thank you Millie,” he said, adding, “I speak to you in complete confidence of course.”

“Yes,” Millie said, nodding.

“And you?” the doctor asked rather absently.

“Oh, there’s someone,” Millie said hesitantly, “but it’s complicated.”

A large part of her wanted desperately to share her secret with Richard. He, surely, would understand. But, for some reason, she couldn’t tell him.

“Anyway, I’m glad we’ve got that sorted,” he said, only slightly awkwardly.

“Yes,” Millie replied.

“Shall we go back inside? It is perishing out here!” And he laughed.

“Yes, let’s,” Millie said.

 

  • * *

 

“I was pleased to see you and Richard Sutton getting along so well last night, Millicent,” Aunt Rose observed as she sat, illuminated by lamplight and engaged in embroidery, her glasses balanced precariously on the end of her nose, opposite her niece.

Millie looked up briefly from the book she was attempting to read in the near-darkness and could even smile at the comment, now she knew for certain she was safe.

“He’s a fine young man,” Rose continued, adding, “with great prospects of a distinguished future.”

“Yes,” Millie agreed vaguely.

“And I’m glad you have cast aside any foolish notions you may have harboured concerning the groom, O’Flynn,” Rose said daringly.

Millie made no reply but blushed into the pages of her book.

“Because it could never have amounted to anything,” Rose finished, ominously.

Millie was determined to give her no response but Rose was equally eager to pursue her theme.

“And not for the reasons with which you are already so well-acquainted, Millicent – not only on account of his lowly station.”

Millie frowned, her eyes still downcast.

“But for reasons of morality and, indeed, biology,” Rose stated.

Millie was aware of the tick of the heavy clock that sat in the centre of the mantelpiece. Aunt Rose’s house was so deadly quiet all the time. Even the servants went about their business in silence. It was one of the things that made staying here seem so awfully eternal. But, try as she might to stifle her interest in what the older woman said, Millie now found herself staring across the room at her.

“Do not think for one moment that this business with Effie is anything new, Millicent,” Rose continued, seeming to digress, “or that I am in the least shocked by it.”

Millie looked back down at her page.

“If your assertions about the implication of Mr –or should I say Captain– Windham in Effie’s situation are correct, then know, Millicent, that this is merely an example of history repeating itself. As, indeed, is the incidence of this dreadful war,” she then mused, chiefly to herself.

Millie couldn’t help but look back up at Rose and frown steadily, contemplating the earlier part of her address. The clock ticked eight times before her aunt resumed her discourse.

“Did it never occur to you to question why Ryan O’Flynn was given that hovel on the estate and allowed to bring his grandmother over to England?”

“The old lady was destitute as I understand it, Ryan’s father and grandfather having died.”

“But why should Randolph have looked favourably upon Ryan, Millie? I’m sure many of the staff at Glassnest have similar sob-stories of ill-fortune and poverty in their backgrounds and I don’t see Randolph encouraging them to invite their sundry relatives to sojourn at the Hall.”

The flippant disregard with which Rose spoke about the servants annoyed Millie. Despite that, however, she felt perplexed by what she heard.

“And surely Mrs Overton has far greater claim on the cottage – or even the man John, who seems to have been in your father’s household forever,” Rose continued. She was becoming frustrated with her niece. “And I could go on but you seem to be missing my point, Millicent.”

“No, I don’t understand you, Aunt,” Millie admitted quietly, shaking her head.

“Then I will speak plainly. The groom O’Flynn is your father’s illegitimate son, Millicent. Why else would he have brought the puny child over from Ireland and then spoilt him with accommodation beyond that which he provides to other employees and indulged him with the addition of a quite useless old woman?”

Millie was both shocked and angered by Rose’s words but her immediate –and rather incoherently delivered– retort was simply to point out that the cottage could hardly be described as luxurious.

“Think about it, Millicent, and you will see that it all adds up,” Rose said superiorly, glad to have rattled her niece’s cage. “Your father visited that Irish estate for years. Your mother never accompanied him–”

“Daddy brought Ryan home because he was orphaned–”

“There are tens of orphaned boys he could have brought back from Ireland,” Rose said viciously. “He only brought back the one he felt duly responsible for.”

“I’m going to bed, Aunt Rose,” Millie said, agitated. It wasn’t yet seven o’clock.

“You’ve had no dinner,” Rose pointed out.

“I’m not hungry. Excuse me,” Millie concluded, rising, leaving the room and then running up the stairs, before her tears began to spill uncontrollably.

 

 

Chapter 12

 

Millie submitted to staying with Aunt Rose until her aunt and father saw fit to let her return to Glassnest. She knew that any eagerness she showed to go home would only result in Rose preventing her from doing so for longer. As often as possible she escaped the watchful eye of Rose by roaming the city galleries and museums, a pursuit of which Rose approved, due to its educational value. But even this, Millie found, couldn’t lift her spirits; the capital itself seemed to have been shrouded in a dark veil since the outbreak of war.

Eventually the day came when, at breakfast, Rose announced, “Your father wishes you to return home, Millicent.”

“Very well,” Millie replied, trying to appear indifferent to her fate. But she was relieved all the same. To get back to Ryan and Kerry was all she desired, even though she knew she’d struggle to find a way of stifling her feelings for her half-brother.

“Will you take a train this afternoon?” Rose enquired.

“If that would be alright with you, Aunt,” Millie said.

Rose simply nodded.

Millie finished her breakfast as swiftly as possible, without appearing to rush, and went upstairs to pack.

The train journey was uneventful but, as Millie neared Glassnest, she felt a yearning –an impatience– to be home that almost made her feel sick.

She was met by John at the station, Aunt Rose having begrudgingly sent a telegram in the morning to alert the Hall to Millie’s return. It was nice to see a familiar face. As John loaded Millie’s trunk into the carriage, she informed him that, it being a fine evening, she would like to ride alongside him.

“As you wish, young Miss,” he replied.

“So how are things at the Hall?” Millie asked as the horses moved off from the station forecourt.

“Much the same as when you left us, Miss,” John replied casually.

“And how are you men doing?” Millie proceeded, knowing very well it sounded contrived.

“As well as we can be, Miss,” John said, amused by the question.

“And Ryan?” Millie couldn’t help but add.

“Oh now, there’s the change, Miss Millie,” John said soberly.

“He’s not gone?” Millie asked.

“Him and several others–”

“What do you mean, John?” Millie was anxious.

“They came recruiting in the village and young O’Flynn was one of the lads who signed up–”

“When was this?” Millie asked, alarmed at the news.

“A few weeks back now–”

“And you say he’s gone already?”

“That’s right, Miss Millicent. Well, it was almost immediate. You know what a fine young figure of a man he was. I dare say they took one look at him and snapped him up.”

“Yes,” Millie murmured, looking out across the bare wintry fields and feeling sick again.

 

  • * *

 

When Millie arrived at the Hall she was met by Mrs Overton, who informed her that her father had dined early as he was busy with estate business and had now retired to his study to complete some work with which he was preoccupied. Millie was to take her evening meal alone.

Much to the housekeeper’s annoyance, Millie insisted on greeting her father before she dined and she burst into Randolph’s study as soon as she had removed her coat.

“Ah, Millicent, my dear,” Randolph said, looking up from his pile of papers. He worked in lamplight and his eyes looked strained already.

“How could you?” Millie blurted, finding it hard to hold back her tears.

“I’m sorry darling?” Randolph asked, confused.

“How could you let Ryan go like that?” Millie said, thinking but not saying, ‘Your only son.’

“Millicent, Ryan is a grown man. He felt it was his duty to offer his services for king and country. It wasn’t for me to stand in his way.”

“I don’t believe you. You must have forced him–”

“Millicent, your talk is wild. You obviously need to rest. I had instructed Mrs Overton to give you dinner–”

“I just can’t believe you could do that, Father,” Millie said before pausing and then adding, “I don’t suppose you even know where he is – you don’t care–”

“He wrote en route to the Continent,” Randolph replied calmly. “That’s the latest we’ve heard from him. Mrs Overton has the letter.”

Millie withdrew and went to the kitchens without saying more to Randolph. She hoped the housekeeper would prove more useful than her father.

“Miss Millie, the table is set for you in the dining room,” Mrs Overton said, in a mildly reprimanding tone, when she saw Millicent lingering in the doorway to the kitchens.

“Oh, I can’t be doing with that nonsense, Mrs O. Can’t I eat in here?” The last thing Millie wanted was to sit uncomfortably alone in the cold, vast room. Furthermore, she wanted to speak with the housekeeper.

“It’s highly irregular, Miss, and your father will disapprove–”

“Give over,” Millie said lazily, entering the kitchens, her arms folded stubbornly. “He’s locked in his study anyway; he needn’t know.”

Millie took a rustic chair at the large table and awaited the plate that Mrs Overton took out from the oven, where it had been kept warm. “Roast beef,” the housekeeper said, as she set it before Millie. “Cook just plated up your veg,” she added somewhat apologetically.

“That’s fine, it looks lovely,” Millie said graciously, glad to have been granted her wish to stay in the warmth and comfort of the kitchens.

“What would you like to drink with it, red wine?”

“Oh no, just some tea please,” Millie replied, calculating that Mrs Overton might well then make a cup for herself and stay with her as she ate.

“And how is your Aunt Rose?” Mrs Overton asked politely as she brewed the tea, whilst Millie began to eat.

“Insufferable,” Millie replied flatly, much to the outraged amusement of the housekeeper.

“Oh Miss Millie, you do talk rashly sometimes,” Mrs Overton chided.

“I’m not exaggerating. She’s even worse in her own home than she is when she’s visiting us.” Millie heard the housekeeper laughing, although she hid her face. “John was telling me about Ryan – and the others,” Millie resumed, trying to make the comment sound natural.

“Yes, these are sad times we’re living in,” Mrs Overton said with a sigh, as she brought a pot of tea to the table.

“And Daddy mentioned you’d received a letter from him. Do you still have it?”

“I’m afraid not, Miss – I think I mislaid it.”

“Where might you have put it?” Millie pursued.

“I dare say I’ve burnt it, Miss,” the housekeeper admitted.

Millie looked down at her plate to conceal her anger. This was unbearable. Did nobody here care about anybody any more? Had Effie still been at Glassnest, she’d have kept the letter, Millie felt certain. It might be the last they’d hear from him. “What did he say?” Millie asked, raising her eyes to Mrs Overton, who had now taken a seat opposite her at the table and was engaged in pouring out two cups of tea.

“That he was well,” the housekeeper replied. “That he was to be a groom in the cavalry–”

“But the letter was written when he was still in England?”

“That’s right,” Mrs Overton said.

“And he said nothing else?”

“No, Miss. Just that he would keep in touch with us.”

Millie drank some of her tea and continued to eat in silence, knowing that the housekeeper watched her closely all the while.

“Do you have an address for him?” she asked after a time.

“Yes I do Miss,” Mrs Overton replied.

“Might I have it? I’d like to write to him,” Millie said too eagerly. She saw the housekeeper’s expression and clarified, “Since I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye.”

“Of course Miss,” Mrs Overton said knowingly, adding, “I’m sure he’ll be very glad of any correspondence from home.”

 

  • * *

 

The next morning and every day after for the following two weeks, Millie rode Kerry out into the furthest reaches of the estate grounds. “I’ve neglected you, my gorgeous girl, haven’t I?” Millie whispered to the horse, as she stood stroking her head, once they’d reached the clump of trees where she and Ryan had brought the horses that first time Millie had ridden Kerry.

Kerry was such a calm beast now and, as far as Millie was concerned, she was the only being that Millie wanted to be with at Glassnest. Their days were spent riding in all weathers and taking shelter beneath trees or in dilapidated farm buildings if it was raining when they stopped. Millie talked to Kerry but said little to anyone else. She found she missed not only Ryan but also Effie. Nobody else at Glassnest understood her and she felt they were all in league with her father.

She remained perplexed where Randolph was concerned. When she’d accused him of forcing Ryan to enlist, she hadn’t really known whether she believed the accusation to be true or not. She’d just felt so angry with him and had wanted to provoke a response.

The fact remained that, if anybody could have dissuaded Ryan from leaving Glassnest, it would have been Randolph. Millie was furious that he hadn’t even tried. How could her father have let his only son slip so easily from his grasp and into the grip of a conflict that could end his life before it had even really begun?

Millie couldn’t bring herself to confront Randolph about what Aunt Rose had told her – she just avoided him now. And, of course, she was annoyed with him for colluding with Rose to keep her in London. If Millie herself had been at Glassnest, she would never have let Ryan go.

After a fortnight spent carrying out her daily ritual of riding Kerry, Millie found herself wending her way back to the Hall through the woods in which Ryan’s cottage stood. The thought had not before occurred to her to visit Grandmother O’Flynn. She now felt a certain amount of guilt that she had neglected the old lady and had failed to consider how lonely Grandmother O’Flynn must be feeling since her grandson had left home.

Tying Kerry to the picket fence that surrounded the cottage garden, Millie entered the gate and walked up to the stout, solid, wooden front door. She knocked at it and waited.

It took the old lady a while to come to the door but when she opened it and beheld Millie, her face lit up. “Ah, Miss!” she said, with a welcoming gesture that Millie should enter the house.

Millie thought it strange that the old woman seemed so happy but, as she took a seat by the fireside, Grandmother insisting that she herself should prepare the tea, the reason for Grandmother O’Flynn’s good spirits became apparent.

“Haven’t you just missed Ma Overton, with a letter from the boy,” she said, stoking the fire to encourage the kettle to boil.

“A new one?” Millie asked eagerly, feeling a pang when the old lady confirmed her suggestion because Millie herself had written to Ryan on the morning after she’d arrived home but had still received no reply from him.

“I’m so proud of him, Miss Millicent,” Grandmother O’Flynn gushed. “If his father knew that Ryan was now a groom in the cavalry, he’d be bursting with pride.” She finally took a seat opposite Millie, obviously exhausted from all the excitement and her over-exertion.

Millie couldn’t help but smile to see the old lady so happy, and was almost won over by her optimism. She tried to extract more particulars from Grandmother O’Flynn but the most she could glean was that Ryan was now abroad and had made a good friend called Tom.

As the kettle began to boil, Millie insisted that Grandmother O’Flynn should stay put in her armchair and she should brew the tea. As she did so, the old lady began to talk about the past and there were times when it seemed to Millie that she was confusing her memories of Ryan’s father with those of Ryan himself.

Millie handed the grandmother a cup and saucer and, taking up her own cup of tea, settled back into the rocking chair and moved it gently back and forth with her foot as she listened to the hum of Grandmother O’Flynn’s reminiscences. Millie was enjoying the hot drink, the warmth of the hearth and the soft Irish lilt of the old lady’s voice. But she wasn’t really listening to what Grandmother was saying. Gazing into the flames of the fire, Millie thought of Ryan; the kisses and embraces they had shared on this very hearth. When would she experience those sensations once more? Would she ever know those feelings again?

Turning, at last, from the flames and towards Grandmother O’Flynn, Millie thought about Aunt Rose’s claim regarding Ryan’s paternity. Even if he came back from the war, he could never be Millie’s husband now – not if he really were her brother.

It was all too much to contemplate. Millie took advantage of a brief break in Grandmother O’Flynn’s discourse to recall the old lady and herself back to the present. “And are you being looked after, Grandmother O’Flynn, now that Ryan’s not here?” she asked. “They still bring you food over from the house?”

“Oh yes,” the old lady assured her. “Mrs Overton brought me some cold meats just today.” She paused. “Although, I have to say, I miss my visits from young Effie.”

“Yes, I miss Effie too,” Millie agreed.

“It was a sorry business between her and our Ryan. I still don’t understand what went wrong there. They would have made such a fine couple.”

“Yes,” Millie said softly, with less conviction.

“And, proud as I am of him, I can’t help but think that, if they’d married as planned, he wouldn’t have gone to war.”

“No,” Millie said, her response barely audible.

The old lady fell silent, sipping her tea and gazing into the flames, as Millie began to appreciate the full weight of the guilt she should now be feeling. She had ruined both Ryan and Effie’s lives. Had she not interfered in their intentions to marry, Effie would still be here, with a loving, supportive husband. Instead she was alone in London, with the prospect of lone-parenthood looming ahead of her. Ryan wouldn’t have gone to the Front; he’d be safe at Glassnest and be loved by Effie.

This whole mess had come about because of her selfishness. Never mind Ben Windham taking what he wanted and then taking no responsibility for the outcome of his actions; what Millie had done was no better.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Grandmother O’Flynn said, looking at Millie intently.

“Oh, nothing,” Millie replied evasively. “I should get going now,” she added awkwardly, realising as she spoke the words that she was responsible for the old woman’s solitude and loneliness on top of everything else.

 

  • * *

 

As soon as Millie got back to the Hall, she sought out Mrs Overton to enquire about Ryan’s letter. However, bumping into one of the maids in her quest, she discovered that she herself had received something in the post. The five minutes it took the girl to locate it and bring it back to Millie were agony.

Millie took the letter upstairs to her room, eager to shield its contents from prying eyes. It must be from Ryan. Once in her room, she opened the envelope feverishly and then threw herself onto the bed to read the letter.

 

My Dear Miss Millie,

 

I’m so glad you wrote and cannot tell you how it cheered me to hear news from home. We crossed the Channel a week ago now and have just and so reached the place where we’ll be stationed. This is the first opportunity I have had to reply to you – we have been on the move all the while and it has been exhausting.

Firstly, I must correct you on thinking I am a groom in the cavalry. I’m not sure where that came from – Mrs O? My role is nothing so grand, although, now I’m here, I’m not sure that being in the cavalry would be so very glamorous after all. But I’m with the working horses, Millie; not fine, charging, stallions but great, plodding shires, pulling the guns and transporting supplies and munitions – nothing so noble as you may have envisaged, I’m afraid. But it’s a role I’m suited to and, in the short time I’ve been with these beasts, they’ve grown as dear to me as Kerry and Charger ever were.

But Millie, regarding your desire that Kerry were here with me, I would never wish that fate upon her. For one thing she wouldn’t last a day under the burdens placed upon the horses here. For another, I know she is far too precious to you to run the risk of her being lost. Don’t get me wrong, the horses are valued and we do our best to keep them in shape, but, here on the Front, their lives are as precarious as our own.

I won’t lie and tell you that it’s all fine and dandy, or indeed glorious, Millie. I can’t really describe what it’s like – only to say that I imagine it’s the nearest thing to hell that exists upon this earth. Forgive me Millie, but it’s the truth.

So you can imagine how happy your letter makes me. I keep it in the inside pocket of my tunic, next to my heart. Please do write again soon – and you could be more liberal with your kisses and terms of affection in future! I’m not writing this myself, Millie – you know I’m not the best with reading and writing. My good pal Tom is writing down the words for me as he’s a regular William Shakespeare! But he can be trusted completely Millie, so please don’t hold back on being honest when you write.

I do not know when we shall meet again but the prospect of that day is what is keeping me going more than anything at the moment.

 

My love always,

Ryan

 

As Millie read on through the letter, her vision became increasingly blurred by her tears. The thought of Ryan in that place –of him feeling such despair– was unbearable. She was saddened and angered by all she read; angry again with Randolph. Ryan fighting for king and country! It was a farce: it wasn’t Ryan’s king and it wasn’t even his country, really.

Millie was utterly perplexed as to how the version of events fed to Grandmother O’Flynn could differ so widely from Ryan’s own experience. Did Ryan hide the truth in his letters to the Hall? Or was it Tom who wrote something at odds with what Ryan actually said? Or was it indeed Mrs Overton perverting Ryan’s words? Anyway, Millie was relieved to get the sense of Ryan’s true voice in her letter – however upsetting the truth was.

She cried for twenty minutes solid after finishing reading the letter, lying on her bed, feeling wretched. But it was then that she realised she was merely feeling sorry for herself – that wasn’t going to help Ryan. Millie pulled herself together, got up from the bed, went over to her bureau and began to compose a reply.

She really didn’t have much news so most of her letter’s content was a description of her rides with Kerry – of how fine the estate grounds looked, veiled in the hoar-frost of early morning. Although, reflecting on the chilly weather led her to worry about Ryan’s welfare and health in the trenches. But she had to be positive. She reported that his grandmother was well.

Of course, Millie wanted to let Ryan know just how much she missed and loved him. She had been moved by how daringly frank he’d been with her, given that the letter was to be sent to the Hall. But Millie appreciated that, with his life so constantly in the balance, Ryan would feel compelled to be bold and reckless.

She wanted to tell Ryan how much she loved him but, of course, to suggest that kind of love would now be misleading. Millie had to prepare for that fact that, if they ever did meet again, it would be upon terms very different to what they had been before. And so she signed off her letter with, “Your ever-loving friend, Millie.” That seemed appropriate – it could so easily have been substituted by, “Your ever-loving sister.”

Upon finishing the letter, Millie felt drained and listless. Her work was not complete, however, so, being careful to avoid detection –her eyes still bloodshot and her overall appearance sickly, she knew– she crept down to the kitchens (which she found to be, thankfully, deserted), prepared herself some tea, pinched a couple of buns from the larder –and also a bar of Randolph’s favourite chocolate, to include with her letter as a gift to Ryan– returned upstairs, carrying her cup and plate very carefully, and resumed her seat at the desk.

While she ate and drank, Millie considered what she would say in her next missive. Happily, she found that the sweet icing sugar on the Chelsea buns perked her up almost immediately. It wasn’t long before she set to work once more.

 

Dear Doctor Sutton,

 

How lovely it was to talk to you at my aunt’s dinner party recently. I do hope you are well and that your work is progressing as you would wish.

I write to enquire whether, by any chance, you have need of a secretary, or, indeed, whether the hospital is looking for administrative staff at present.

I admit that I have no prior experience of such, or indeed any, work but I am most eager to be useful in this time of national strife, have had a decent education under the tutelage of a very sensible woman and consider myself to be well-organised.

Having my own means, a salary would not be a necessity. I should simply like to be of use to yourself and the hospital in some capacity.

I do hope to hear back from you soon.

 

Yours sincerely,

Millicent Awbridge (Miss)

 

 

Chapter 13

 

The following morning, Millie rode out on Kerry, heading across the estate grounds, bound for the vantage point within the clump of trees that was their familiar haunt. On reaching it, Millie dismounted and wrapped her arms around the horse’s neck. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave you again, my darling girl,” she said, brushing her cheek against Kerry’s sleek, warm coat. There were tears in Millie’s eyes as she surveyed the fields that had been, for so long, so dear to her. But she knew she had to go.

Decisively, Millie climbed up onto Kerry’s back and they charged down the hill, heading towards the house. Millie needed to speak to Randolph whilst her conviction was strong and she still felt energised.

Having left the horse with Daniel, the stable lad, Millie went straight to her father’s study, still wearing her riding habit. She knocked on his door but entered before she heard his call. His head was amidst papers.

“I need to speak to you Daddy,” Millie began. “It’s quite urgent.”

And then she told him of the compulsion she felt to do something useful – of her sense of hopelessness, being cooped up at Glassnest, when there was so much good she could be doing out in the world. She explained how she had contacted Richard Sutton, proposing that she should work in his hospital, and that she hoped that, if Richard didn’t have a post for her, Randolph might use his influence to find her a position elsewhere.

Randolph was aghast. It was a while before he could form a response to what he heard. But when he did, it was very far from what Millie was hoping for.

“But my dear, you have no skills in administrative matters. You would most certainly be a hindrance in any office rather than a help. And it is nothing short of outrageous that you propose to earn a living by the same means as any common girl could, when you have been brought up with such advantages and expectations.”

Millie interrupted him, pointing out that she was willing to work on a voluntary basis and use her allowance to fund herself. But Randolph merely laughed at the idea, declaring it preposterous. At this Millie became angry – she had never thought her father’s attitude to her could be so patronising and she knew very well that she was capable of being useful.

“This isn’t really something that I’m asking your permission for, Daddy,” Millie said forthrightly. “It’s something I’m going to do.”

“Well you shall find it a very difficult undertaking when I withdraw your allowance, Millicent,” was Randolph’s imperious retort.

Millie fled from his room, stifling her tears. She ran directly out to the stables and to Kerry’s stall. Daniel had just finished removing the horse’s riding tack.

“I’m going to ride her again, Danny,” Millie said hurriedly.

“But Miss, she’s just cooling down,” the boy replied, and, as soon as he said it, Millie knew he was right.

Relenting, Millie agreed with Daniel and told him to get on with his other duties. When the boy had gone, Millie put a halter on the horse and led her back out into the yard.

They walked all the way back to the viewpoint, the unseasonably spring-like breeze blowing into them as they scaled the hill. It was comforting to Millie to have Kerry close by and it was the most pleasant of late winter mornings. But, for all the beauty that surrounded her, Millie now felt imprisoned on the estate. She had to get away from Glassnest, whether or not the move met with her father’s approval.

 

  • * *

 

For several days a silence descended between Randolph and his daughter. Apart from time spent with Kerry, Millie began to think she would go mad if she wasn’t able to escape Glassnest.

Then over breakfast one morning, Millie received a letter. She knew immediately that it wasn’t from Ryan as the envelope bore a Kent postmark. Millie realised it was reckless to open the letter in her father’s presence but the temptation was too great to resist. Trying to restrain herself from actually tearing the envelope open, she put down the letter on the white tablecloth, finished her scrambled egg, set down her cutlery on her plate and moved it to one side and then took up the letter and slowly opened it.

It was, as she had anticipated, a reply from Richard Sutton. It began with pleasantries but, to Millie’s delight, moved swiftly on to the point: there was a job for her at the hospital. And that wasn’t the best of it. ‘It is very charitable of you to offer to work for free, Miss Awbridge,’ he wrote, ‘but this would be highly irregular. The post comes with accommodation in the hospital grounds and a small salary. Should you wish to accept it, please confirm at your earliest convenience.’

Millie smiled down upon his words.

“Who has written to you?” Randolph asked warily.

“Oh, just a girl I met when I was staying with Aunt Rose – a society girl.”

“Well, her news seems to have cheered you immensely, Millicent,” Randolph observed with uncustomary warmth, given their recent conflict.

“It’s just nonsense,” Millie said, “just society nonsense.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” Randolph replied. “You’re young, Millicent. Your life should be carefree. You must get this do-gooding notion out of your head.”

“Yes,” Millie answered distractedly. “Can I be excused now please, Daddy?”

“Of course my dear,” Randolph said, pleased to feel he was getting somewhere with her. “What do you have planned for this morning?”

“Oh, I dare say I’ll ride later on but, for now, I’ll reply to my letter.”

“Very good,” Randolph concluded approvingly.

Millie left the dining room and rushed upstairs. She would reply to Richard, accepting the position at the hospital, immediately. The inevitable scene with her father could wait.

 

  • * *

 

Millie told Richard that she wanted to start work at the hospital as soon as possible. But, after she’d written the letter, she realised she had no suitable clothes to wear in the role of a secretary – most of her formal garments were way too frivolous for the world of work. So she began to concoct a plan to make a brief visit to London en route to Kent and to acquire a couple of outfits whilst she was there.

But she didn’t want to stay with Rose. Her aunt’s disapproval was the last thing she needed to hear when the prospect of a launch into the real world was already daunting her.

To Millie’s delight, Richard was quick to reply to her letter, proposing that, since she was so eager to undertake her new role, he should meet up with her at his uncle’s residence when he had a weekend’s leave due in a couple of weeks’ time. He would then escort Millie to the hospital, which was in the grounds of an estate, set deep in the heart of the countryside.

Buoyed up by Richard’s assertiveness, Millie was so bold as to reply to his letter, requesting if she might stay a night at his uncle’s house, in advance of their departure. She knew he would be in agreement to the plan. She made sure to mention her desire to see that Effie was well, knowing that Mrs Sutton would then be only too glad to allow her to stay with the family.

Richard’s reply was prompt and in the affirmative; his aunt would be delighted if Millie could stay two nights! Everything was set for the following weekend. Richard’s aunt and uncle were expecting her on Friday. Millie smiled gleefully to see her plans fall, so easily, into place. The smile only subsided upon her reflection that she had still to tell Randolph that she was leaving.

 

  • * *

 

“Be sure to take good care of her, Danny,” Millie said to the stable lad, patting Kerry’s side as they stood in the stall with the horse.

She had told the boy she was going. Whether he would pass on the information to John and the other staff, she didn’t know; she just knew that telling someone at Glassnest seemed to be the only way to make it real and to spur her on to speak with her father; and the boy had been the easiest person to tell.

Of course, he didn’t quiz her about it – that was probably why she’d chosen him out of all the servants. He just nodded and said, “Yes, Miss Millie.”

“And make sure to ride her,” Millie added. “John told me that you’re learning to ride and you’ll find her the steadiest horse, Danny. Believe me.”

“Yes, Miss. Thank you, Miss,” he said.

Millie kissed the mare once more, uncertain whether she would get another opportunity to say goodbye, once the chaos was let loose.

Later that same morning, Millie stood before Randolph in his study, her eyes downcast as they had been when she’d revealed her intentions to him. After the passing of a moment, his response came and it was just as Millie had anticipated.

“I absolutely forbid it, Millicent. No daughter of mine shall work for a living.”

Millie detected that Randolph trembled as he spoke. There was one final measure to which she now knew she had to resort, though she’d been resisting it for so long. “Mummy would have let me go,” she said simply.

Randolph didn’t reply.

“She always said there was nothing so awful as an idle life,” Millie went on.

“Your mother didn’t work a single day – she barely set foot outside this house once she was married!” Randolph retorted.

“Not paid work, no,” Millie, agreed, “but she saw her work as being here: supporting the school in the village and helping the Reverend with his good works in the parish. She had her purpose,” Millie insisted, concluding, “She would have understood that I want to do something useful now.”

Millie waited silently for her father’s reaction.

He sighed. “You know, your mother always said you were an Awbridge through and through. She said she couldn’t see a look of herself or any of her family in you. And she wasn’t wrong, Millie – you look just like my mother.”

Millie raised her eyes to her father, wondering where his thoughts were now tending.

“But in temperament, you’re Amelia all over.”

Millie couldn’t help but smile at her father’s comment and to see his countenance soften with the remembrance of her mother.

“You’re every bit as stubborn as she ever was,” he continued before falling silent again.

“Is that a yes, Daddy?” Millie asked tentatively.

He let out a deep sigh and then said, “I suppose it is, Millicent.”

At that, she crossed the study floor and threw her arms about her father’s shoulders, saying, “Thank you, Daddy! Thank you!”

Randolph was overwhelmed and almost cried at the relief he felt now the conflict between them was finally resolved.

“And it’s not so very far, you know. You’ll still get to see me. Richard Sutton visits his uncle when he has leave and we could do the same. We can meet at Aunt Rose’s.”

“Yes my dear,” Randolph agreed, clinging to the girl, secure in the knowledge that, despite her words, this was the moment when he was having to let her go.

 

 

Chapter 14

 

Millie stood on the steps of the Suttons’ elegant London town house. Mrs Sutton had been eager to send her man to fetch Millie from the station but Millie had insisted on hiring a cab upon arrival – she was determined to begin to live like a normal person.

The cab driver had set Millie down outside the Sutton residence and carried her luggage from his carriage and up the several steps to the imposing front door of the house. Millie now stood waiting, having rung the bell.

In a moment the door opened and Millie was both delighted and surprised to see Effie, not wearing her customary housemaid’s garb but dressed in a rather good suit, designed to flatter her in her state of maternity. The girl smiled warmly to behold Millie, saying, “Come in Miss. Mrs Sutton is expecting you.”

Millie had no sooner crossed the threshold of the house than she took Effie in her arms. “You look well,” she said.

“I am well, thank you, Miss Millicent,” Effie replied, rather taken aback to be greeted so enthusiastically. “Will you come into the lounge? Mrs Sutton has ordered tea. One of the men will bring in your cases.”

Millie was pleased to find that, when she went into the bright, airy room with Mrs Sutton, they were soon joined by Effie, Mrs Sutton having invited her to sit with them to take tea and cake.

“Did Effie tell you she runs our household now, Millicent?” Mrs Sutton began once Effie was in their midst.

“I can’t really do domestic chores any more,” Effie explained modestly.

“But we’ve discovered she has the most wonderful head for figures. I don’t think the house has ever run so smoothly as it does now that Effie is in charge of placing orders.”

Millie saw Effie blush to receive her employer’s praise.

“Don’t do yourself down, Euphemia,” Mrs Sutton insisted. “You’re capable of much more than a mere maid.

“I understand you wish to shop for outfits while you’re here, Millicent,” Mrs Sutton continued, changing tack, to Effie’s relief. “I was thinking that you girls might like to go into town this afternoon, while the weather is good.”

“Yes,” said Millie, “so long as Effie is sure she’s up to it.”

“I’ll be fine, Miss,” Effie insisted.

“Just don’t let her carry anything, Millicent,” Mrs Sutton cautioned, adding, “She’s a devil for carrying things that are far too heavy for her in her condition.”

Effie smiled at her mistress and Millie was pleased to hear Mrs Sutton’s almost maternal tone towards the girl.

“And do look out for anything small for the baby, Euphemia. I shall give you some money just in case. Only small things, mind. Leave the acquisition of anything heavy to me.”

“Yes Ma’am, thank you Ma’am,” Effie replied, glancing at Millie and rolling her eyes on account of the older lady’s fussing but pleased, Millie could tell, to be indulged by her.

To Millie’s delight transport for the afternoon’s excursion took the form of the tram. Again, this was contrary to Mrs Sutton’s desire but Effie insisted that public transport was altogether easier than the Suttons’ carriage for getting into the heart of the city.

Millie observed that Effie seemed to have adapted quickly to her new urban surroundings and marvelled at the way the quite heavily pregnant girl strode ahead through the bustling streets, bound for Mrs Sutton’s recommended dressmaker.

Millie was measured up and ordered two outfits, both long heavy skirts and formal close-fitting jackets.

“You shall look very well in those, very efficient, Miss,” Effie observed as they chose the styles of Millie’s suits by looking at the mannequins in the shop window.

“But I need something to take with me too, Effie – and some blouses,” Millie said. “I literally have nothing I can wear to work in and it will be a week or so before the tailored suits arrive.”

So Effie took Millie to a department store, where Millie selected four blouses and a cheapish ready-made suit. Effie waited for her while she tried on the new outfit and, when Millie appeared from the changing cubicle, Effie remarked how grown-up her former mistress looked.

Millie blushed at the comment. The clothes did make her feel different – she felt like an adult.

The items approved, Millie suggested she buy a present for the baby and favoured a beautiful white robe, in cotton with embroidered trims. Effie said it was too elaborate but Millie insisted upon the choice, saying it was a present from her and her father and that her father would only approve of a grand garment for a gift.

Effie accepted the present, which Millie could tell she really adored, and the girls set off for home, Millie laden down with bags – she flatly refused to let Effie carry any of them.

Nearing home on the tram, Millie took the opportunity to ask Effie how she was really feeling about the prospect of motherhood. She suspected that the chance to speak frankly with her might not arise again.

“Everybody’s been very nice,” Effie began. “Mrs Sutton is wonderful, of course.”

“And you wear the ring,” Millie observed, glancing down at Effie’s hand.

“Yes,” said Effie.

“And does that prevent any – speculation?” Millie asked delicately, struggling to find the best words to convey her meaning.

“For the most part,” Effie said, “but the Suttons’ housekeeper keeps asking, if my husband’s at war, why does he never write to me.”

“What do you say?” Millie asked.

“That he’s not the best at writing,” Effie said, the expression on her face conveying that this response didn’t entirely satisfy the housekeeper. “I think perhaps she’s jealous of me now that Mrs Sutton has got me doing so many of the things that she used to do,” Effie explained.

Millie smiled, knowing that she had the means to rectify the problem. When they got home, she told Effie, she would give her the address of Ryan’s unit. “He’ll be so happy to hear from you, Effie,” Millie assured the girl. “And you might send him some treats from the Suttons’ larder – you remember how he likes chocolate?”

The maid brightened with the memory of Ryan. Millie was glad to think that he would soon be receiving comforting words from Effie as well as from her.

 

 

Chapter 15

 

On Sunday morning Richard Sutton arrived at his uncle’s residence bright and early, and it was not long before he and Millie set off on their journey for the country.

They travelled out of London by train and, after a change, and upon arrival at a rural station, were met by a porter from the hospital.

Millie’s introduction to the hospital was brief that evening. By the time they got back to the hospital grounds, night had fallen and many of the patients were sleeping. Almost as soon as Richard entered the building, he was called upon to attend to a soldier so Millie was shown to her room by a nurse and then taken to the refectory, to eat supper before retiring for the night.

The next day she became acquainted with the office in which she was to work and managed to begin to gain her bearings around the sprawling house. The work didn’t seem so complicated and Millie felt certain that, given time, she would become very proficient in her role. But something else about that first day disturbed her.

At teatime, Millie was roused from her paperwork by a knock at the door of her office. Upon her call to enter, Millie beheld a very elegant, tall, blonde young woman in a senior nurse’s uniform. The woman smiled angelically as she looked down at Millie seated at her desk. Extending her hand she said, “Hello Millie. I’m Margaret.”

Millie took the offered hand and rose from her seat.

“I wondered if you’d like to come to the refectory for tea,” Margaret continued, adding, “Richard seemed to think you’ve spent most of the day cooped up in here.”

Millie gladly accepted the kind offer but was careful, as they walked the long corridors of the house, to avert her eyes from much that she saw about her.

“How are you finding things?” Margaret asked knowingly.

“Oh fine,” Millie replied. “Everything in the office is so orderly. I don’t think it will be very hard to pick things up.”

“We do rely on systems,” Margaret said. “It can get pretty chaotic here at times so we need to adhere to procedures, both out on the wards and behind the scenes.”

They took a seat at a refectory table and Margaret went over to the counter and soon returned with two cups of tea. “Would you like a scone?” she asked Millie.

“Oh no, I’m fine,” Millie replied.

“Nonsense, you need to eat, Millicent. You need to keep up your strength,” and before Millie had chance to say more, Margaret rose again and soon reappeared with two plates. “I eat at every opportunity,” she explained as she sat back down.

“But you’re as thin as a rake,” Millie observed involuntarily.

Margaret laughed. “Well you see, there are times when the opportunities don’t arise so often!”

Margaret tucked into her scone before being distracted by a young boy who entered the canteen on crutches and called out to her.

She returned the greeting, flashing him her angelic smile.

Catching a brief glimpse of the boy’s face, Millie found she had to turn away.

Margaret knew exactly what the problem was. “Don’t worry Millicent. You’ll get used to it.”

Millie caught Margaret’s eye but found she couldn’t admit her difficulty in looking at the men. The boy who Margaret had greeted so easily was badly disfigured.

“It’s hard for us all at first,” Margaret reassured her. “But imagine what it’s like for them, Millie. Having to look at themselves in the mirror. The one advantage we have is that we don’t know what they looked like before.”

“Yes,” Millie said, sipping her tea and looking sadly at Margaret.

“The best you can do for them is to be cheerful, Millie. That really does lift their spirits,” Margaret advised.

“Yes,” Millie replied, nodding.

“Now eat your scone,” Margaret instructed light-heartedly.

Millie found she had to smile at the kind girl’s insistence. She seemed remarkably down-to-earth for such a beautiful young woman. Millie understood why Richard was besotted by her.

 

  • * *

 

As the days passed in the hospital, Millie became better acquainted with her role in the office and began to feel more at ease around the patients. But she envied the easy relationships that Margaret and the other nurses seemed to have with the men; bonds that obviously arose from the caring roles that the nurses undertook. Whilst she knew that her own work was valued, Millie felt necessarily distant from the real life of the wards. Talking with Richard one evening, she alluded to this. In response, he assured her that the smooth administrative running of operations was the backbone of the hospital’s effectiveness. But these words were little comfort to Millie.

Shortly after this conversation, Millie’s afternoon was interrupted by Margaret’s appearance in the office. It had become their ritual to take tea together in the refectory if Margaret was able to have a break from her duties, and Millie was glad, not only of her company, but also of the opportunity to feel more absorbed into the daily life of the hospital – much of her work was confined to her solitary office, the hospital manager and senior surgeons being the only staff who regularly frequented it beside herself.

Once seated at a table in the airy canteen, Millie having taken her turn to fetch their tea and cakes, as she noticed that Margaret was looking particularly tired, Margaret began, “Richard mentioned that you’d like to be more involved with life on the wards.”

Millie was taken aback by the comment. She felt inadequate in comparison to Margaret, who was such a skilled nurse. “Yes but it’s difficult to see what use I could actually be,” she said dismissively.

“Oh I wouldn’t be so sure, Millicent. What we nurses are often short of is time.” Margaret paused to take a bite of her cake.

Millie waited, eager to hear more.

“One of the things a lot of the boys like is to read, Millie. It takes their minds off their worries in the evenings before bed. But many of them don’t read well. Some of them can’t read if their sight’s been damaged, of course. And even if they can read, there’s something soothing about being read to. If you could find a spare hour or so in the evenings, I’d be glad of your help.”

“Just reading to the men?” Millie queried.

“Yes, it would be wonderful if you could do that.”

“Of course,” Millie said, brightening. “I’d be only too happy to.”

“We have quite a library of novels that were in the house, and I’ve been storing up some more accessible modern stories for a while now,” Margaret said.

And so it was agreed that Millie would join Margaret on her shift the following evening. After their conversation, Millie returned to her office feeling nervous but excited about her new role.

 

  • * *

 

“What would you like me to read, Robert?” Millie asked the young man she remembered from that first time she’d gone into the canteen with Margaret – the boy whose face she couldn’t look at. It was still hard for her to maintain her gaze when confronted by his disfigurement.

He leaned over to the small cabinet beside his bed and, opening a door, reached in and produced a bundle of letters. “If you don’t mind, Miss,” he said, “I wondered if you might read these to me. I’ve read them before,” he added, “but I’d like to hear them again.”

Millie accepted the bundle and untied it.

“Start at the bottom,” Robert instructed. “And I’d be obliged if you’d call me Bobby, Miss.”

Smiling at his formality, Millie responded, saying, “Very well, Bobby. I’d be obliged if you’d call me Millie.”

“Oh no, Miss,” Bobby protested, “that’s too familiar.”

“Millicent then,” Millie replied.

“But that sounds too grand,” he complained. He thought for a moment and then suggested, “Why not Miss Millie? I like that much better.”

Millie smiled to herself as she opened the first letter from the bottom of the pile, wondering whether she’d ever escape her title.

Robert’s letters were a mixture of missives from home, mostly from his mother; some from his father; the odd one from younger friends who had escaped enlisting due to their age, but most significantly from a girl named Bella, whose words seemed to affect the boy deeply.

Millie enjoyed reading through the letters, and the initial disappointment she’d felt at missing the opportunity to revisit Great Expectations as she’d intended, was soon cast aside, amidst the interest she found within these small windows into Robert and his family’s lives.

As she progressed through the pile, approaching the present day, Millie became despondent at the realisation that, whilst the letters from Robert’s mother became all the more frequent once he had been injured, those from Bella petered out. She knew that she was not, of course, gaining insight into Robert’s return communications to the letters but she gleaned that Bella’s tone changed and her letters became fewer and further between at the point at which Robert must have communicated the nature and extent of his injuries to her. Millie found it hard to hide her sadness and disappointment at this discovery from Robert.

“Would you like to see a picture of Bella?” Robert asked, reaching eagerly over to the small cabinet again before Millie had chance to reply.

As she said yes, Robert handed her a photo, not only of his sweetheart but also himself, before the war, the two of them looking happy and carefree.

“Pretty isn’t she, Miss?” Robert said.

“She’s lovely, Bobby,” Millie replied, preoccupied, in truth, with Robert’s handsome, youthful features. She recalled Margaret’s comment about how hard it was for the wounded soldiers to come to terms with the alternations in their circumstances and appearance – Robert, surely, was one of the more extreme cases of this. Though he still had his limbs intact and was fully mobile, Millie knew that Richard thought it unlikely the boy’s face could ever be reconstructed to resemble that of his former self.

Lifting up her eyes from the photograph, Millie tried very hard to look at Robert and smile, despite her sadness on this count.

“You’ll have noticed she writes less often now, Miss Millie,” the boy said, struggling to make the statement sound matter-of-fact.

Millie instinctively took his hand but found herself unable to coin an adequate response to his comment.

Stifling a tear, the boy looked over at the book Millie had placed on his bed. “What’s that?” he asked.

“Great Expectations, a novel by Charles Dickens,” Millie said. “Do you know it, Bobby?”

“No Miss,” he replied, shaking his head.

“I thought, if you like, we could read it,” Millie said. “I read it as a girl but I don’t recall the detail so well.”

“I’d like that, Miss Millie,” Robert said.

Millie smiled at him. “We don’t have to start tonight. Maybe you’re too tired? Maybe you’d like to rest now?”

“No, Miss, I’d like to hear some of the story, if you don’t mind. Just the start – it might help me settle.”

So Millie began to read the book aloud and, before long, she found that Bobby, who had sunk down in his bed to lie flat upon his pillow, had fallen asleep.

 

 

Chapter 16

 

Weeks passed, months passed at the hospital – the war continued. Millie became increasingly confident in her role and Richard Sutton was pleased to see her blossoming into a sensible, mature young woman, realising fully that the influence of his beloved Margaret was in no small way responsible for the transformation.

Millie was happy to be occupied in her work and glad to feel useful. She seldom thought of Glassnest and, whilst she heard little from her father or aunt, didn’t worry unduly about it. As time passed, however, she grew increasingly concerned that she received no word from Ryan. But she knew that, in a way, she should be relieved. Millie concluded that she could only assume he was alright (since no information to the contrary came via Glassnest) and hope that perhaps Effie had replaced her as his main correspondent.

Millie’s current life of duty supported her conviction to cease to look upon Ryan as a lover. She told herself that if and when she did meet with him again, she would treat him with the care and concern she extended to all the soldiers she encountered at the hospital – she would greet him as if he were her brother. It wouldn’t be hard. Millie had learned a lot more about men whilst she’d been working at the hospital.

These days, far from flinching from the sight of the wounded soldiers’ injuries, Millie looked upon them frankly and smiled fondly at them. She knew many of them well now, through reading to them, but young Bobby remained a favourite.

One evening, long after they’d completed Great Expectations, Millie sat on the edge of his bed, talking to him in hushed tones, as the other patients slumbered about them.

She found their conversations had a repetitive quality. Bobby had impressed her with his desire to hear more classics of literature but she soon realised that it was love stories he craved – and not simple, comforting happy endings; what Robert wanted to hear were tortured stories of rejection and loss. Their readings of such tales invariably led to his reflection on his own situation but tonight, after she’d completed a chapter of Wuthering Heights, his thoughts turned to her.

“Do you have a sweetheart, Miss Millie?” Robert asked.

Millie hesitated, before replying, “Yes.”

“Away at the Front?” Bobby surmised.

“Yes Robert.”

“An officer?”

Millie shook her head. “He’s a groom. He handles working horses.”

Bobby looked intrigued that Millie’s beau should not be of the same social rank as her. “How did you meet?” he pursued.

“He works for my father.”

“And does your old man approve?” Bobby asked.

“He doesn’t really know, Robert,” Millie replied, adding, “but if he did, no, he wouldn’t approve.”

“Do you think anything will come of it?” Bobby said, with a directness that took Millie by surprise.

“I don’t know,” she responded vaguely, reflecting on the other issues that were far too complex to try to explain to Bobby. “Look, it’s late, Robert,” she said. “I think we both need some rest.”

Reluctantly, he agreed and Millie, briefly reaching out her arm to squeeze his hand in her own, rose from his bedside and walked silently down the long corridor of the great house that had been adapted into a hospital ward.

But she didn’t get very far before the low whisper of a familiar voice arrested her.

“Millie,” was all it took to unsettle her.

She stopped in her tracks and turned in the direction of her name.

“I knew it was you,” he continued. “I couldn’t see you – only hear.”

Millie walked over to Ryan’s bedside, gazing down in disbelief.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Millie,” he said.

She shook her head and sat down on his bed.

He reached out a hand to hold her arm. Instinctively, she leant over and, with her free hand, stroked his face.

“What happened?” Millie asked.

“The war,” Ryan replied wryly.

“Your injuries?” she continued, detecting no visible signs of them.

Ryan shrugged his shoulders. “The odd scrape,” he said dismissively.

Millie looked intently into his eyes.

“Apparently, it’s my spirits that are broken,” Ryan admitted, unable to look at her as he said it.

“I hadn’t heard from you for so long,” Millie said.

“No,” Ryan confirmed, looking bleakly into the middle distance. “My pal Tom,” he explained tentatively, “was killed some months ago now.”

“I’m sorry,” Millie said, wanting to hold him but knowing she had to be cautious with her displays of affection. She stroked his cheek and sought his gaze. “I’m so glad you’re alright,” she said. “So glad you’re out of danger.” Immediately she uttered those phrases, she realised they were small comfort to him. Millie knew very well, from her dealings with the patients and her talks with Margaret, that one of the greatest obstacles facing most of the boys in the hospital was their sense of guilt that they had returned from the Front alive, when so many of their companions had fallen there.

Millie felt unable to continue their discussion – it was too much to take in. She resorted to repeating the spiel she so often had to deliver to Robert. “It’s late,” she began, “and we can’t talk at this hour. The other men are sleeping. I’ll come and find you tomorrow – we’ll talk then.”

He turned his head and looked her in the eye.

Millie desperately wanted to tell him she loved him but she couldn’t. “You must rest now,” she said, leaning over him and placing a kiss on his cheek.

As she withdrew from Ryan’s bedside, Millie saw the look of confusion on his face. She tried to meet it with the steady, reassuring smile she projected towards all the other patients but it wasn’t so easily done in his case.

 

  • * *

 

The following morning it was Richard, not Ryan, whom Millie sought out as soon as she was about her work. Although her deepest instinct was to rush to Ryan’s bedside, she remained confused about how to behave towards him and, furthermore, she wanted to hear from Richard just what the extent of Ryan’s injuries were.

She found Richard working in his office and was relieved that they could talk in private. Richard anticipated what Millie was about to say as she entered the room.

“I’m so sorry,” he began, “I meant to find you last night but it was so hectic in theatre.”

Millie established that Richard knew Ryan’s identity and he confirmed her suspicion that the nature of Ryan’s physical injuries was not really extreme enough to warrant his place in the hospital.

“I believe your father has had a hand in this, Millicent,” he said in hushed tones. “From what I’ve seen of the lad, I think he’d be patched up and sent back to the Front pretty sharpish under normal circumstances – he’s a strong boy. But there’s something amiss in his outlook,” Richard continued, looking at Millie soberly, “and I think Randolph wanted to ensure he had longer to convalesce before being sent back over there.”

Millie left Richard’s office with a muted smile on her face. Perhaps Randolph did care for his only son after all. But her anxiety related to Ryan. She would wait till evening to see him. She would think very carefully about how to behave.

 

  • * *

 

“How are you feeling?”

“I hoped you’d come sooner.”

“I’m sorry, we were really busy in the office today,” Millie explained awkwardly. She knew he didn’t believe her. In truth, she had put off seeing him until early evening – such a time as she thought many of the other patients would be safely installed in the refectory. She didn’t want their conversation to be overheard.

Millie took a seat at Ryan’s bedside – sitting on the bed itself was too familiar. She realised he wasn’t going to answer her initial question. “How’s your grandmother?” she asked.

Ryan gazed at her sadly. “She’s dead, Millie,” he said plainly.

“No!” Millie faltered. “I’m so sorry Ryan – I had no idea–”

“Ma Overton wrote to me a couple of months back. They said it was peaceful – in her sleep.”

Millie had leant forward and now held onto his hand. He, in turn, placed his other hand on top of hers.

“I don’t know what to say, Ryan,” Millie admitted.

“She was old,” he replied. “She’d had her life.” He paused before going on, “It puts it into some sort of perspective that I’ve seen so many young lives wasted these past months.”

“Yes,” Millie agreed softly. “Have you heard from Effie?” she asked after a while, eager to find a more optimistic topic of conversation.

“Yes, she tells me the young fellow is doing well.”

“Yes,” Millie agreed, brightening. Her updates on Effie’s progress came from Richard Sutton; Millie herself hadn’t communicated directly with Effie since she’d visited the Suttons’ house at the time of the start of her job. “She’s called him Callum, you know – a good Celtic name!”

“Of course I know – she named him after my father.”

“Really?” Millie pondered this information. “That was a nice gesture.”

“I was very touched,” Ryan said.

They fell silent, Millie aware that her hands were still enfolded in his and wondering how to free them without appearing cold.

“I could read to you, if you like,” she suggested after some moments had passed. “I could nip back to my room and fetch a book–”

“Have we really nothing more to talk about, Millie?” Ryan asked rather forlornly.

“I’m sorry,” Millie replied weakly. “It was just so unexpected seeing you last night – I think I’m still in shock.” She immediately regretted her choice of words: ‘shell-shock,’ she knew, was a term they’d coined to describe the condition that Richard had implied Ryan was suffering from.

“I knew you’d be here,” Ryan said. “Was just desperate to see you.”

Millie couldn’t formulate a response to his admission.

“I sense your feelings for me have changed, Millie,” he said sadly.

Millie looked down at her hands as she withdrew them from his grasp. “It’s just this war,” she said rather feebly. “I’ve changed, Ryan. The notion of love seems a very frivolous one at the moment–”

“I can’t think of a time when love mattered more, Millie,” Ryan said earnestly, shaking his head. “Is there someone else?” he asked.

Millie found she could look him in the eye to answer that question. “No,” she said plainly. But she found her honesty couldn’t extend to telling him the real reason behind the alteration in her affections.

“I’m tired, Ryan,” Millie said. It was no lie but it was their conversation that had left her feeling drained, rather than anything that had gone before it. “Maybe tomorrow we could have a walk around the grounds at some point – they’re lovely. I can push you in a chair if you’re not up to walking–”

“There’s nothing wrong with my legs, Millie,” Ryan said resentfully.

It wasn’t long before Millie left Ryan’s bedside. And she feared that, as she did so, his spirits were as low as hers.

But, back in her room, Millie didn’t go to sleep for a couple of hours. She sat at her small table and composed two letters. The first was addressed to her father, asking him if he could arrange for Ryan to return to Glassnest to convalesce for a time before returning to the war. ‘Arrange’ was to over-simplify her request, of course, but she felt that, since Richard had implied that Randolph had already had a hand in determining Ryan’s fate, his influence could, perhaps, be extended further. Moreover, she suggested that Effie would make the perfect nurse for Ryan and wondered if her father might consider recalling her to Glassnest to undertake that role. (She didn’t go too deeply into the issue of the baby. As she saw it, the baby could return with Effie or stay with the Suttons – Effie could decide upon that. Preoccupations with moral quibbles seemed increasingly ridiculous to Millie in the face of all the tragedy of the war.)

The second letter she wrote to Effie herself, congratulating her upon the arrival of Callum, saying she trusted mother and baby were well and broaching the subject of a return to Glassnest. She explained that Ryan had been injured and needed care but urged Effie not to worry about him. Again, she avoided the issue of the baby in her mention of any projected return to the Hall.

When she’d signed, re-read and sealed the letters, Millie finally retired to bed. But she didn’t sleep. She lay, thinking of Ryan. She was meddling in his life again, she realised. It was something she seemed incapable of resisting – and, once again, she couldn’t be sure that what she was doing was right.

 

 

Chapter 17

 

The following day Millie sought out Richard at the first opportunity. “I wanted to talk to you about Ryan O’Flynn,” she began.

“There’s little point,” Richard replied briskly, “He’s due to be discharged today.”

“Discharged?” Millie echoed. “Where will he be sent?”

“Back to the war,” Richard said.

“But he can’t,” Millie protested, with a shadow of the petulant girl she had once been.

“Look Millicent,” Richard began calmly, “Ryan should never have been admitted here in the first place. It’s very difficult to justify keeping him–”

“But you know he’s not right. You said yourself his spirits are low–”

“Is that really any wonder, given that he’s been engaged in fighting a battle?”

Millie was annoyed by Richard’s impatient tone.

He sensed her distress and relented, saying, “I know it’s hard because he’s one of your father’s men but the point is, Millie, if he were any other soldier, he’d just be sent back now his injuries have been seen to. It’s unfair to treat him any differently.”

Millie knew Richard was right but she refused to give up. “Please Richard,” she said, “can’t he stay a couple more days. I wrote to my father and I’m sure he’ll respond quickly when he knows the situation.”

Richard’s expression was dubious.

“Ryan’s like a brother to me,” Millie urged, but she feared she sounded unconvincing, in as much as she was at risk of suggesting he meant something more to her than a brother.

Richard sighed. Millie knew she was compromising his professional ethics.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, “but it really can only be a couple of days.”

Richard was about to leave Millie, to resume his rounds of the patients but before he could go, she added, “And Richard, please don’t let Ryan know that I’m involved in this – he’s terribly proud, you see.”

Richard only nodded and looked at her seriously. He couldn’t smile in regard to any of this business.

 

  • * *

 

At the first opportunity once her urgent duties of the morning had been performed, Millie sent a telegram to Glassnest, briefly outlining her concerns for Ryan and stressing the need for Randolph to act quickly – her letter would take too long to arrive. There followed a tense couple of days as Millie awaited some response from her father. When none came and she accepted that Richard’s period of grace had expired, Millie approached him in a mood of resignation.

“What will happen to Ryan O’Flynn?” she asked Richard, after having opened the conversation with another contrived topic, in order to appear less desperate than she really was.

“He’s travelling to Glassnest tomorrow,” Richard replied.

Millie’s face was a mixture of delight and guilt at the success of her scheme. “And when will they make him return across the Channel?” she continued, assuming the respite could only be temporary.

Richard avoided her gaze as he explained, “He won’t be going back, Millie.”

She was silent, intrigued by what she heard.

“It seems O’Flynn has a weak heart – something that was missed when he had his initial medical examination. Now that’s been identified, he’s deemed unfit for war.”

Millie hung her head, knowing the defect had been concocted. But, in truth, she was glad she’d meddled. All she wanted was for Ryan to be safe.

“It wasn’t me,” Richard stressed, looking her in the eye at last. “It was Doctor Sams who examined him.”

Millie nodded and thought that their conversation had reached an end.

“You should be aware though, that this might just lead to a worsening of his mental condition. The problem a lot of these men have is that they feel guilt that their comrades have died while they’ve survived. If Ryan’s permanently discharged now, he’ll be left dwelling on that thought,” Richard warned.

Another reason for Millie to feel responsible, she reflected. But what else could she have done?

 

  • * *

 

Throughout her intervention in his affairs, Millie had been visiting Ryan in the evenings and talking to him in the same unsatisfactory way that they’d spoken when he’d first arrived at the hospital. By the time he came to leave for Glassnest the situation hadn’t been resolved: Ryan was still offended and upset by Millie’s coolness; Millie was only increasingly aloof as she pretended ignorance of Ryan’s supposed medical condition and the plans that she principally had made for his future.

“I just can’t understand where this diagnosis of a heart problem has come from,” Ryan complained to her during their last conversation before his departure from the hospital. “I mean, you know me, Millie, I’m as strong as an ox.”

“But apparently you’re not, Ryan,” Millie responded. “The doctors know what they’re talking about. It’s just fortunate they found the defect in time.”

Millie found she had to divert her gaze from his earnest face. Ryan was looking at her suspiciously.

“I don’t know what earthly use I’ll be at the big house,” he continued.

“Everybody will be thrilled to have you back,” she said.

“But I can’t apply myself to anything–”

“Which is exactly why you shouldn’t be going back to the frontline,” Millie said firmly.

“But I should Millie,” Ryan insisted in an anguished tone. “I’ve no right to be excused from that duty.”

And when he said that, Millie couldn’t find adequate words of reply. She couldn’t say that she just wanted him to be safe – that would only compound his feelings of being unjustly favoured. Furthermore, she couldn’t say anything that would imply she still loved him in any way beyond that in which she would love a brother. So, adopting the tone of the professional administrator that she now was, Millie simply said, “Well, there’s nothing you can do about it,” and later on, when she’d left him for what was likely to be the last time for a matter of months at least, she realised that it had probably been the least helpful thing she could have said.

 

 

Chapter 18

 

More time passed; the war wore on, it seemed to Millie, endlessly. She was sustained by the sense that her work was worthwhile and by the friendship she enjoyed with Richard and Margaret. They, she knew, were buoyed by their love for one another and by the prospect of being able to be truly united once the war was over. Margaret had confided in Millie regarding Richard’s plan to set up a private practice in London, enabling Margaret to work alongside him. Once they had earned sufficient funds for Richard to no longer be reliant on family money, they would marry, regardless of whether their union had his uncle’s approval.

Millie couldn’t help but envy the optimism their intentions gave them. For herself, she could see nothing beyond her present life and work in the hospital. She could never go back to Glassnest – she didn’t want to.

She managed to avoid visiting the Hall for a matter of years, always urging Randolph to meet up with her at Aunt Rose’s in London, in preference to travelling back home herself. Effie had, in accordance with Millie’s plan, returned to the Hall soon after Ryan, taking Callum with her. Millie didn’t ask after them but she envisaged them enjoying the kind of companionship that existed between Richard and Margaret. Although it was the outcome she had wanted, she couldn’t bear to witness it or even hear mention of it.

But Millie could defer a visit to Glassnest no longer once Richard Sutton relayed to her a piece of information that his aunt had passed on to him. “Ben Windham has been killed in the war, Millie,” he told her plainly on a Monday morning after he’d spent the weekend on leave in London with his aunt and uncle.

She wasn’t surprised – death was no longer surprising. But she knew instantly what the problem was.

“Effie confided in my aunt,” Richard continued, looking at Millie knowingly. “My aunt is eager that she shouldn’t hear the news casually – it would upset her. She wondered if you might be willing to deliver it to her in person.”

Millie knew she had to go to Glassnest to do that – and she couldn’t delay: bad news travels fast; Millie had to get to Effie before it did.

 

  • * *

 

Having Richard’s consent, Millie was able to leave for Glassnest the following day. She wanted her visit to be as low-key as possible but she had to let them know she was coming so that she could be met at the station. However, to Millie’s relief, she discovered, upon arrival at the village station and being collected by John, that her father –and Ryan– were currently away on business (it was to do with the stables, John said but he knew no more). This made things easier.

On getting back to the Hall, Millie declined John’s offer to ask one of the maids to fetch her some tea, and made straight for the kitchens. There, Millie found the cook at work and also Mrs Overton, as she had hoped.

“I’m very eager to see Effie, Mrs O,” Millie said once they’d exchanged pleasantries and Mrs Overton had made Millie agree to eat something after her long journey. “Might I go up to her room while Cook’s making my tea?” It was late afternoon and Millie knew that Effie was likely to be having a break from her work.

“Oh she doesn’t live in the house now, Miss Millie,” Mrs Overton explained. “She and young Callum have O’Flynn’s cottage.”

“Ryan’s grandmother’s place?” Millie queried, in truth knowing full well what the housekeeper meant.

“Yes, as soon as they came back from London, Ryan insisted they should take it.”

“And where does he stay?” Millie asked.

“Shares a room in the house with young Daniel,” Mrs Overton replied.

Millie wasn’t surprised by this development. After she’d drunk the tea and eaten the teacakes that Cook had offered her, she wended her way along the path through the woods that led to the little house.

Effie answered Millie’s knock promptly and invited her in. The cottage, Millie noted, seemed brighter now it was inhabited by Effie. The young women embraced warmly, safe from the gaze of those who would have disapproved of such informality between mistress and servant.

“Will you take some tea, Miss?” Effie asked.

Millie didn’t really want any more tea but she accepted the offer, knowing that what she had to say was news best received accompanied by the comfort of a hot, sweet drink.

As Effie brewed the tea, the young women talked in, what seemed to Millie, a contrived manner. She wasn’t really concentrating on the conversation – she was just waiting for the opportunity to say what she had to. Once Effie handed Millie her cup and saucer and took her own seat beside the fire, there was a silence that Millie broke, saying, “Benjamin Windham is dead, Effie.”

Little more needed to be said to explain the circumstances. And, once Millie had told Effie what she knew, all the girl had to say in response was, “Must be terrible for his parents.”

“Yes,” Millie agreed.

They fell silent, Effie gazing into the embers of the small fire that had been burning, Millie allowing her eye to wander around the room. She spied a framed picture of Ryan on the Welsh dresser that had belonged to his grandmother. It should have come as no surprise to her that Effie had taken the news of Ben Windham’s death so stoically – she had a new love in her life, and it was a source of both joy and sorrow for Millie to see confirmation of this. “How’s Callum?” she asked, realising she had been quiet for too long.

“Oh, very well, thank you, Miss. He’s asleep at present – still takes a nap in the afternoon.”

“And how do you get along at the Hall?”

“Very well, Miss Millie. I assist Mrs Overton with the housekeeping nowadays. It means I can keep an eye on the little one – although he spends most of his time getting under Cook’s feet in the kitchen.”

Millie smiled and was glad to hear that Effie had been accepted back into the bosom of Glassnest. She noted that Effie wasn’t wearing her mother’s wedding ring but thought it better not to comment upon the fact. “And Ryan?” she ventured, suddenly appreciating that everyone at Glassnest might well assume Callum to be his son. Maybe Effie and Ryan were quite happy for that to be the case.

Effie was hesitant. “Not so well, to be honest, Miss.”

Millie said nothing and waited for Effie to elaborate.

“He’s a changed man since he came back home. You wouldn’t know him, Millie.”

Millie needed to phrase her next question carefully. “But … you and he…?” she said tentatively.

“Are as good friends as we ever were, Miss,” Effie was quick to reply, understanding Millie’s meaning only too well. “He’s always been so kind to me. And giving up the cottage for us like he did.”

“Yes,” Millie agreed. “But you’ve no intention to marry?” she asked boldly.

“No, Miss!” Effie said, rather amazed by the suggestion. “Well, not Ryan anyway,” she added in a confidential tone.

Millie watched her closely.

“To tell the truth Miss, I do have a sweetheart,” Effie continued, sounding, to Millie’s ear, as though she had been waiting for someone to confide in. “But we’re keeping it quiet for now.”

“Oh?” Millie said, not wishing to scare Effie out of sharing her secret.

“It’s Daniel, Miss,” Effie said, looking nervously to Millie for approval.

“That’s lovely,” Millie replied.

“I know he’s only young,” Effie hastened to add, “but he has a sound head and a stout heart, Miss, believe me.”

“I do Effie,” Millie said, reaching across and taking her hand.

“And he makes me feel younger,” Effie said.

“You are young, Effie!” Millie remarked, somewhat amused by the girl’s comment.

“I don’t feel it,” she said earnestly.

“No,” Millie agreed, shaking her head and sobering at the thought of what Effie meant. “This war has aged us all, I think.”

“Yes, Miss.”

“I was just thinking how much older Ryan looks in that photograph,” Millie observed, gesturing to the frame on the dresser.

“Oh, that’s not Ryan, Miss. That’s Callum, his father.”

Millie froze. It was she who now received the shock. How could she have been so stupid as to accept Rose’s claim at face value? Never had father and son looked more alike.

“I helped Ryan sort out his grandmother’s things when we moved in here and he insisted we should have that so that young Callum had a likeness of his namesake. Grandmother O’Flynn never displayed the family photos – it upset her to see likenesses of the ones she’d lost, Ryan said. But I like to keep that photograph out.”

Millie didn’t really register what Effie was saying. Her head was a confusion of ideas. “When you say Ryan’s still not well…?”

Effie looked pained to explain her meaning. “He shares a room with Daniel in the Hall. Dan says he wakes with nightmares every night. Dan does his best to comfort him –we all do– but nothing seems to restore him to his old self, Miss Millie.”

 

  • * *

 

Millie returned to the hospital the following day, leaving Glassnest without seeing either Ryan or her father. A few days later she received a letter from Randolph, chiding her for visiting the estate without forewarning him. This was no surprise to her but the latter part of his missive was: Randolph declared that it mattered little as the war would soon be over and she could then go back to Glassnest for good.

Millie dwelt on his words, pondering the origin of his ideas about the state of things. As soon as possible she checked with Richard to see whether he shared Randolph’s view of the conflict.

“He’s right enough, Millicent: Germany’s running out of steam; it’s looking like the allied forces will win through before too long.”

They could neither of them regard it as a victory, given what they had witnessed over the past four years but Richard was surprised that his words resulted in an expression of anxiety, rather than relief, on Millie’s face. He quizzed her about this.

“Randolph assumes I’ll go back to Glassnest and carry on just as before,” Millie told Richard glumly.

“But that’s not what you want?” he surmised.

“No. But I’ve no idea what else to do,” she admitted.

And then, not for the first time, Richard Sutton came to Millie’s rescue. He said it was Margaret who’d suggested it: with an end to the war finally in sight, they themselves had been starting to make more solid plans concerning Richard’s medical practice, and Margaret had highlighted the need for the business to be managed. “If only Millicent were available to come to work for us,” she had said.

 

 

Chapter 19

 

The war ended – and not so very long after Randolph had predicted it would. But when Millie returned from the hospital to Glassnest, to spend Christmas with her father and Aunt Rose, her reunion with Randolph was neither peaceful nor joyous.

“Your notion of becoming Richard Sutton’s secretary is an outrage, Millicent,” he told her upon her arrival, when she’d barely had time to instruct the servants what to do with her bags.

“Not here, Daddy; not now,” Millie pleaded, annoyed at being treated like a child again.

Randolph escorted her to his study, where the argument could proceed out of earshot of the staff, although he hardly cared who heard it.

Millie had written to her father as soon as the armistice had been declared and she had been able to get a sense of a timescale for an end to her work at the hospital. As far as she was concerned, it was perfect: she would leave the hospital at Christmas, spend a month at Glassnest and then return to London in the new year, by which time arrangements for Richard and Margaret’s practice would be far enough advanced for her to start to work with them. Millie had known Randolph would be furious but it seemed preferable to set out her plans on paper and face his fury on returning home than to spend the holiday looking anxiously for an opportunity to tell him her intentions, in the certain knowledge that whenever she did, he would be furious.

“And, as you Aunt Rose points out, the longer you insist upon this ridiculous campaign of independence, the less likely you are to ever make a good marriage!”

To forestall any threats from Randolph to withhold allowances, Millie had detailed in her letter that she would be living in rooms above the surgery (accommodation that came with her job) and that Richard was to pay her a salary that would more than enable her to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle in London (although she appreciated that her idea of comfort was now very far removed from that of either her father or her aunt).

“I’m afraid my mind’s made up,” Millie explained coolly. “I enjoy working and I like being useful, so Richard Sutton’s offer was one I couldn’t refuse.”

“This is intolerable, Millicent,” was all Randolph could utter in reply and his tone of exasperation convinced Millie that she would encounter little more opposition to her plan, despite his disapproval.

“Please let’s not spoil Christmas, Daddy,” Millie said. “I’m so thrilled to be back home – and at this special time.” Millie looked steadily upon her father as she spoke. It was only now that he really looked at her and she could tell that he found her appearance alien. Millie knew she was a woman now. It wasn’t just that she knew her own mind – she even looked like a woman. Randolph, who hadn’t seen her on home territory in so many years, finally seemed to be realising this fact.

“We’re so lucky to be alive, Daddy,” Millie said in conclusion. She knew that, in that one statement, she’d managed to make her father’s protestations look petty. Millie couldn’t help but smile to herself when she witnessed Randolph’s expression of defeat; she was the adult in this relationship now.

 

  • * *

 

Millie had been deciding how to regard Aunt Rose, in the light of her discovery of Rose’s attempt at deception. There was, of course, the possibility that Rose truly believed Ryan to be Randolph’s son – but Millie doubted this to be the case.

Millie had avoided seeing Rose since she’d uncovered the lie, but she appreciated that she needed to resolve the matter. Confronting her aunt was pointless; the question was whether she should now eternally hold a grudge against her and this question remained unanswered until Millie actually set eyes upon the grand dame.

As soon as Millie saw Rose, she knew that the approach she should take was to rise above her aunt’s conniving ways. She would behave as if the incident had never happened – she would behave like an adult towards Rose too.

Strangely, Rose made no allusion to Millie’s plans to remain in London in Richard Sutton’s employ – Millie had assumed this would be the subject of her first cutting remark upon their meeting. But nothing was said. Perhaps Rose had decided to leave the matter to Randolph? Perhaps she was full of the festive spirit? Millie neither knew nor cared – she was beyond Rose’s domination.

Christmas progressed in its usual quiet way, apart from a visit from the Suttons en route to spend the holiday with relatives in the Midlands. Then Millie was entertained by Mrs Sutton’s insistence on Effie and Callum being included in the party, with the inevitable suppressed horror of Aunt Rose. Richard was present too but Millie noted how subdued he was – she imagined he would see little of Margaret over the holiday, and she sensed that he was growing weary of keeping up the pretence of his double life. Neither Randolph nor Rose said anything about Millie’s future position in Richard’s practice. Richard’s uncle was too diplomatic to refer to it – and Millie knew from Richard that he was as disapproving of the whole scheme as her own family, believing that a more glorified future awaited his nephew in hospital surgery. Richard’s mother said little as usual. And his Aunt Sutton was, thankfully, so occupied with Callum that she didn’t find time to raise the matter.

Apart from the visit from the Suttons (which had come about chiefly because Richard’s Aunt Sutton had pestered Rose), Randolph made no effort to socialise over the holiday – he said the war was too fresh in people’s minds for it to be an appropriate way to behave. Millie was quite happy with that. In truth, since her mother’s death, what she had always enjoyed most about Christmases at Glassnest was the way the staff celebrated the occasion: Cook producing mountains of food in the kitchens and singing carols all the while; Mrs Overton’s uncharacteristic jollity and lenience towards the other staff; and that her father was, in fact, a very generous employer whose efforts made the season special for all on the estate. This year the scale of luxuries was not what it had been before the war but Millie sensed the relief felt by everybody in the house that the hostilities had ended, and Randolph had ensured that the Hall was well-stocked with sufficient food and drink for its inhabitants to celebrate as befitted the season.

Millie had been trying to see Ryan since she’d arrived at Glassnest and she had thought it would be easy to seek him out, now that he was living in the house. However, he seemed determined to avoid her and, by the evening of Christmas Day, she had still not managed to set eyes upon him. She’d ridden Kerry on several occasions, hoping this would have resulted in a sighting of Ryan, but each time it had been Daniel who’d saddled the horse for her.

It was nine o’clock and, having finished dinner, Randolph, Rose and Millie were sitting in the drawing room, Randolph smoking a cigar, drinking brandy and enjoying doing nothing, Rose itching –Millie could tell– to play bridge. This she could not do for two reasons and Millie recognised them to be the source of her frustration. Firstly, it was obvious that Randolph was in no mood for gaming. Secondly, a fourth player would be required and Randolph had dismissed the entire staff, including Mrs Overton, to spend the evening as they saw fit. The majority of them were in the kitchens, feasting on a supper of left-overs and indulging in the beer that Randolph had bought in for them.

Millie shared her aunt’s frustration: if only she could escape to the kitchens, she felt certain that Ryan would be found there.

Finally, her opportunity arose. “Really, Randolph, you are too generous,” Rose protested grumpily. “I declare I’m famished and you have not kept one servant up here to attend to my pangs.”

Randolph merely laughed at her complaint but Millie immediately sprang up and offered to go down to the kitchens to alert Mrs Overton to her aunt’s gastric distress.

As she had anticipated, she found the kitchens considerably livelier than the upper levels of the house: some of the youngsters had cleared a space in front of the large fireplace and were dancing, whilst Mrs Overton, John and the cook sat alongside other senior members of staff at the large table, reminiscing about Christmases of old. Entering upon the scene, Millie felt like an intruder but she was heartened by it all the same – so much cosier than sitting stiffly upstairs. At the end of the large table sat Effie, with Callum upon her knee and Daniel by her side.

Effie was the first to notice Millie’s presence and she immediately passed Callum to Daniel and rose to see what Millie wanted. Millie apologised profusely but explained that her aunt was in need of refreshment. She urged Effie to let her attend to the matter and raid the larder but Effie insisted she should do it instead. As Millie waited, she scanned the room more thoroughly than she had initially; there was no doubt about it – Ryan wasn’t there. She followed Effie into the pantries, asking, “Where’s Ryan?”

“He was here, Miss. He ate with us earlier but then he told Dan he wanted some time to himself. I think he went out to the yard.”

“Effie, are you really alright to take this up for my aunt?” Millie asked.

“Of course, Miss. I dare say Sir Randolph’ll be feeling a bit peckish too. I’ll take them up some game pie and pickles.”

“That would be lovely, Effie. Thank you,” Millie said before drifting out of the pantry, gliding through the kitchens unnoticed by the revellers and exiting the Hall via the back doors.

The stable yard was silent and completely dark, save for a small light in one stall – it was Kerry’s stable. Millie smiled to herself as she sauntered over to it. She wasn’t sure why she felt so serene, given the obvious mess that now existed between her and Ryan. She knew very well his avoidance of her had been intentional.

When Millie reached the stable door, she found him, standing beside the horse, stroking and patting it devotedly. He spoke softly to Kerry, the words indiscernible to Millie’s ear. It was only when Millie went to enter the stall that Ryan’s attention was arrested. He turned to face her.

“Happy Christmas Mr O’Flynn,” Millie said, approaching him with an unavoidably melancholic look in her eye. It saddened her that he felt unequal to the high-spirited goings on inside the house.

“Miss Millie,” he replied, rather coldly.

“How are you?” she asked, for want of a better question.

“As well as can be expected,” came his well-worn response.

Millie now stood beside Ryan, their hands close as they both stroked Kerry’s sleek coat.

“I’m glad to see you,” Millie said.

“Really?” Ryan replied somewhat confrontationally.

“Of course. Aren’t you pleased to see me?”

“I don’t know,” Ryan admitted bitterly.

Millie looked him in the eye. She was uncertain what to say next but Ryan spoke for her.

“The way you were with me in the hospital led me to conclude you didn’t care for me any more,” he said.

“But I do care for you Ryan–” Millie insisted.

“You don’t love me,” he maintained. “You don’t want me as a lover.”

Stepping forward, Millie took hold of his hands, and said, “I do though, Ryan. I love you more than ever.” She reached up and kissed his cheek, allowing her cheek to linger against his as she whispered, “And I want you more than ever.”

There was no point in trying to explain why she’d behaved the way she had in the hospital – or maybe that was an explanation for another time. All that mattered now was to let him know that she loved him. “And I want our future to be together,” Millie said.

“Which is why you’re going to live in London,” he replied cynically.

Millie looked at him quizzically, unsure how he knew about her plans.

“Your Aunt Rose was only too pleased to reveal that fact to me,” he said.

“But, don’t you see, you’ll be able to visit me in London and we’ll be able to go about like any other courting couple–”

“Only that ours will be a courtship that will never result in a marriage,” he complained.

“Why are you being obstructive?” Millie asked, sensing there was more to this than his obvious objections.

Ryan hung his head. “Millie, I’m not sure I’m fit to be anyone’s husband these days, let alone yours. I mean, look at me.”

Millie shushed him gently as she kissed him once more – this time his lips. “Then I’ll just have to remain a spinster, won’t I?” she said light-heartedly, before kissing him again.

Drawing back from that kiss, Millie was glad to briefly see a smile on Ryan’s face; it was a brief glimpse because, no sooner had she witnessed it, than she was swallowed by his embrace.

 

  • * *

 

“I wonder, Daddy, whether it would be possible for Ryan to have a couple of weeks’ leave at the end of the month,” Millie said casually in the aftermath of Glassnest’s New Year celebrations.

Why?” Aunt Rose asked pointedly.

Millie addressed the answer to her father.

“Richard has a number of jobs that need doing around the house and I thought Ryan would be just the person–”

“Surely other handymen are available in the capital,” Rose interjected caustically.

“And Ryan’s never visited London–”

“One wonders why an equerry employed on a country estate would,” Rose observed sarcastically.

“Ryan is due a lot of leave,” Randolph observed.

“And I think the break would do him good,” Millie urged.

“It’s quite out of the question, Millicent,” Rose said, shooting a disapproving glance at Randolph, “unless, of course, you yourself remain here whilst Ryan is in London – or you come and stay with me.”

“It’s all perfectly within the bounds of propriety, Aunt Rose,” Millie replied calmly, “Richard will be in residence by then – and Margaret.”

“Who, pray, is Margaret?” the grand dame asked.

“The practice nurse,” Millie said, adding, “and there are plenty of bedrooms in the house.”

Aunt Rose rolled her eyes and tutted.

“Well Daddy?” Millie repeated.

“I can see no reason to deny your request,” Randolph replied.

“Thank you Daddy.” Millie smiled graciously, while Aunt Rose sighed in exasperation.

 

 

Chapter 20

 

By the time Ryan was due to visit Richard’s new medical practice in late January, the elegant London town house purchased reluctantly by Richard’s uncle, with the intention to convert it into a building fit for purpose, was still in a certain degree of chaos. The consulting rooms were in a state of transition from domestic rooms; the rest of the house was full of commercial and personal clutter. But its inhabitants were happy.

The surgery was on the ground floor of the house; the kitchens in the basement. On the first floor were a day room and a dining room, together with Richard’s private apartment. Margaret and Millie had bedrooms on the second floor and the cook and maid –when they were engaged– would reside in the attic rooms. At present, since the surgery was not yet up and running, Margaret was carrying out domestic duties, while Richard managed the fitting and provision of the surgery. Millie helped them both, as required. Despite certain misgivings she had held about being there alone with Richard and Margaret, she felt very far from a spare part and was glad to be spending her days engaged in purposeful activity again, having languished for over a month at Glassnest.

Ryan arrived in the evening, Richard (who was reluctant to allow Millie to venture out into the cold night) having sent a cab to the station to collect him. Millie was at home alone when the doorbell of the large house rang, Margaret and Richard having gone to visit friends of Margaret’s for dinner. Millie had divulged nothing of her feelings for Ryan to either of them but she suspected that Margaret guessed the truth and had arranged this outing tactically.

Millie opened the door to Ryan and invited him in. She could tell he was nervous as he carried his small amount of luggage across the threshold. The ground floor of the house was cold and dark. Millie ushered Ryan upstairs to her room before really greeting him and, as soon as they entered the bedroom, she fell to tending the fire as she’d noticed him shivering. “Come and sit by the hearth,” she said. “Take your coat off.”

Ryan was transfixed by the sight of Millie engaged in manual work. “Don’t you have someone to do that for you?” he couldn’t resist but ask.

“Give over,” she replied dismissively. “I’ll have you know I can make as good a fire as any housemaid at Glassnest.”

“Because you’ve watched them do it so many times,” he replied daringly.

It was only then that, in an attitude of mock offence, Millie rose from the hearth and greeted him with a playful smack on the cheek, fully aware that her sooty hand would leave its mark.

In retaliation, Ryan scooped her up off her feet and kissed her, only releasing her after an embrace that lasted a couple of minutes. He gazed down upon her and smiled, reflecting her beaming face.

“You see how clever I am, O’Flynn?” she said. “Isn’t this lovely? We have a cosy room, a small fire, tea, crumpets and a pie, and, best of all, no Aunt Rose!”

“I really don’t know how you pulled it off, Millie,” he conceded.

“It was a small but most satisfying victory,” Millie agreed.

They passed a pleasant evening, sitting on the carpet by the fire and picnicking, Millie eager to limit the number of trips downstairs, given that the rest of the house was so very cold. They heard Richard and Margaret return but, by then, it was so late that an introduction seemed inappropriate.

Ryan yawned and then apologised.

“No need,” Millie said. “You must be exhausted after a morning’s work and then that journey. I’m tired too.”

“Where will I sleep?” he asked.

It was only then that Millie looked slightly embarrassed. “Well, I had thought you might sleep here. It’s a double bed,” she added, gesturing to the far side of the room, where a large curtain sectioned-off the sleeping area from the living space.

“And where will you sleep?” Ryan asked, trying to disguise his smile.

Now Millie really looked uncomfortable. It was an effort for Ryan to suppress his laughter.

“I suppose I could go downstairs,” Millie said tentatively.

“I think that would be best,” Ryan replied, nodding sagely.

Millie’s gaze was downcast.

Ryan stretched his arm towards her and lifted up her chin, smiling amusedly at her deflated expression. “Or alternatively, I suppose you could just bunk up with me,” he offered.

“That was my plan,” Millie admitted, only then realising that he’d been teasing her. She slapped his cheek in jest again and instantly felt his lips kiss the palm of her hand.

Turning his face towards her, Ryan said, “Isn’t it about time we turned in?”

 

  • * *

 

The following morning Millie awoke feeling more contented than she had ever before. Sleeping and waking with Ryan beside her was the most comforting thing she could imagine. He had woken in the night but Millie had anticipated this and had soothed him after he’d emerged from his nightmare. In the morning they said nothing about it – Millie even wondered whether Ryan recalled waking.

They rose, washed and dressed and then, venturing down to the kitchen, were pleased to find that Margaret had lit a healthy fire and had breakfast well underway. If Millie had been nervous about reintroducing Ryan to Margaret and Richard, outside the confines and conventions of the convalescent hospital, her reservations had been misplaced; he very quickly fitted into their household and insisted on helping Margaret cook breakfast.

Ryan was also eager to undertake the tasks that he understood Richard had intended for him and was visibly disappointed to discover that these had largely been dreamt up by Millie. Richard said that, on such a fine day as it was, Ryan’s time was far better spent visiting the sites of the capital. However, he appeased Ryan by also saying that he would have a think about what needed doing around the house and surgery.

So it was that Millie and Ryan spent the rest of the day touring the city, Millie eager to show Ryan such icons as the Tower of London, Ryan much preferring to just stroll alongside the Thames and drink in the scenes about him.

For Millie, one of the nicest things about being with Ryan was eating lunch in an ordinary cafe, rather than having to keep up appearances as she had to when out and about with Aunt Rose or any of her set.

By mid-afternoon the light was waning and, as soon as the sun went down, the streets became bitterly cold. Millie asked Ryan if he would indulge her once more before they returned home, by escorting her to a proper pub. He was amused by the request but agreed readily and laughed heartily to watch her struggle to drink a half-pint of stout.

“This is a nice public house,” Millie said, looking about her.

“What were you expecting? Spit and sawdust!” Ryan replied, laughing at her again.

“No but I didn’t anticipate it being as nice as this. I could get quite used to this,” Millie said, sinking back into the upholstery of the snug in which they sat.

The pub was still quiet as the working day wasn’t quite over. Millie looked proudly upon Ryan – he seemed at ease wherever he was.

“Marry me, Ryan,” she suddenly said.

He was taken by surprise. “That drink’s gone straight to your head,” he observed light-heartedly.

“No it hasn’t,” she insisted. “It’s just relaxed me enough to say exactly what I’m thinking.”

Ryan looked grave. “Look, Millie–” he began.

“Don’t try to talk me out of proposing. Just answer my question,” she said authoritatively. “I shan’t go down on one knee but here’s my formal proposal.” Millie sat up straight and said solemnly, “Ryan O’Flynn, will you marry me?”

He gazed into her eyes with a strange expression and said, “It doesn’t seem real.”

“It is real,” Millie insisted.

Ryan hesitated a moment as he looked about the saloon. Nobody could really see them. Getting down on his knee and taking Millie’s hand, Ryan said, “Millicent Awbridge, will you marry me?”

“It’s Millicent Agatha Rose Awbridge, actually,” Millie corrected, slightly annoyed that her proposal had been upstaged by his.

“Well, Millicent Agatha Rose, what do you say?” Ryan pursued, now feeling slightly self-conscious as a group of clerks had just walked up to the bar.

“I most graciously accept your proposal, Mr O’Flynn,” Millie said, not caring who saw them.

“Can I get up now?” Ryan asked.

“You may,” Millie granted, enjoying having control of the situation once more.

Ryan rose and took his seat beside her again. “It’s hard to see how it can actually happen,” he admitted, finding difficulty in looking at her as he said it.

“Oh, it will happen,” Millie said confidently, seeking his gaze. She raised her hand to his cheek and then kissed his lips, before repeating, “It will happen.”

 

 

Chapter 21

 

The day when Ryan returned to Glassnest saw Millie relentlessly tearful. She tried in vain to conduct herself with dignity but ended up just feeling more emotional on account of Margaret and Richard’s sensitivity in avoiding any mention of her obvious distress.

Despite the fact that she was soon immersed in the life of the surgery, which opened soon after Ryan’s departure, Millie missed him terribly and was driven by one thought: that their betrothal should mean more than hollow words. She was due to return to Glassnest for Easter and she determined that she would then tell Randolph of her intention to marry Ryan.

Millie wasn’t the only person who was eager to set their commitment in stone. As Richard’s practice got off the ground, quickly establishing a list of affluent patients, through his social connections and the good reputation he had gained for his surgical work during the war, he became increasingly restless to be married to Margaret. On Saint Valentine’s Day, he not only proposed a date in June for their wedding but vowed to tell his uncle of his plans. So it was that, by the time Millie arrived at Glassnest, everyone knew about the minor scandal of Richard Sutton’s unsuitable match.

“And, as if marrying a commoner were not enough,” Aunt Rose said scathingly of Richard, “they actually propose to have Effie’s illegitimate child in attendance at the ceremony.” This comment was intended to outrage Randolph – it was, of course, old news to Millie.

“Callum’s going to be a page boy,” Millie clarified to her father, “as neither Richard nor Margaret has any child in their family and Mrs Sutton is so very fond of Callum.”

Randolph nodded.

Ri-di-cu-lous!” Rose pronounced.

“You’re invited to the wedding, Daddy,” Millie said, ignoring Rose.

“Yes, I received the Suttons’ kind invitation–”

“Of course your father will not be frequenting such a charade, Millicent. Besides, he hardly knows the Suttons. Anyway, you’ll be accompanying me on the day so the two of us shall do very well in representing our family.”

It occurred to Millie that Rose had probably not consulted Randolph upon the question of whether or not he actually wanted to go to the wedding. And, as she was so annoyed with Rose, Millie took great delight in responding to her assertion by saying, “But I’m taking Ryan, Aunt Rose.”

There was a pause of shocked horror before Rose said incredulously, “The groom, O’Flynn?”

“Yes,” Millie replied calmly, “Ryan.”

Rose looked to Randolph for a suitably incensed reaction to the suggestion but none was forthcoming.

“But you can’t possibly do that Millicent,” Rose said, doubly angry that Randolph himself didn’t say it. “We’ll be a laughing-stock.”

“But if what you say is right, Aunt Rose, everybody’ll be so preoccupied with the scandal of the bride and groom, that nobody’ll notice who my guest is.”

“Randolph!” Rose exclaimed, looking for support.

“Richard and Margaret know Ryan from the hospital and from the work he did for them at the surgery. Also, it will be nice for Effie and Callum if he’s there too.”

“Then why can’t he accompany Effie?” Rose asked pointedly.

 

  • * *

 

The argument over Richard’s wedding was not resolved during that conversation. Later in the day, Millie caught her father alone and asked him whether he would like to go to the wedding too.

“What your aunt says is true, Millicent,” he said in response, “I really don’t know the Suttons well enough to feel it my place to attend.”

“But you do approve, don’t you Daddy, of Richard and Margaret’s match – they truly love one another.”

“I have to say that I don’t approve, Millicent. People should marry one of their own social class. Otherwise, it won’t be a happy outcome.”

Millie felt hurt, rather than angered, by his words. “I thought you’d changed, Daddy,” she couldn’t help but observe. “I thought when you let Effie come back you’d become more open-minded.”

“Millicent, I invited Effie home upon your request.” He hesitated before continuing, “And, in part, because I thought she and Ryan might then marry after all. That would be a match of which I would approve.” Randolph found it hard to look at Millie as he said those words. He could barely bring himself to consider what Millie’s intention to take Ryan to the Sutton wedding really implied. “Effie’s not a bad girl,” he said, when Millie failed to respond to his earlier comments. “And,” he continued tentatively, “I can see that your accusation of Windham was just – Callum is undoubtedly his son; he’s the double of him. I accept that Effie was wronged by Windham.” It was still hard for Randolph to condemn one of his own class, Millie could tell, but at least he admitted Ben Windham’s guilt.

And so Easter didn’t transpire to be the time when Millie revealed her full plans to her father. But she did secure his agreement to allow Ryan, along with Effie, to have leave to attend the wedding. So in June, in spite of the presence of a very uncomfortable and unwilling Aunt Rose –although she wouldn’t have missed the event for all the world!– the Glassnest party, and Millie in particular, enjoyed the occasion of Richard and Margaret’s wedding. Standing beside Ryan, Millie wept as the happy couple said their vows – she so envied Richard’s bravery in pursuing the marriage partner he desired. She was comforted by Ryan discreetly taking her hand in his but the gesture just reminded her that it was she who needed to be brave when it came to the question of their own union.

 

  • * *

 

Contrary to her expectation, Millie found she didn’t feel uncomfortable returning to live above the surgery once Richard and Margaret were married. The newlyweds occupied the first floor apartment, Millie now had the second floor to herself, and the recently-installed cook and maid resided in the attic rooms.

Far from becoming a lady of leisure upon her marriage, Margaret worked tirelessly alongside her husband in the surgery. Millie had wondered how Margaret would take to having servants but she found that Margaret treated them very much as colleagues, accepting that they were necessary additions to the household, given that she was so deeply involved in her work once again. And so, as the cook and maid were both amiable, efficient young women, it was a relaxed and enjoyable domestic existence for Millie, free, she was relieved to discover, of the hierarchies of Glassnest.

The June wedding only intensified Millie’s awareness of her own predicament and, inevitably, she confided in Margaret concerning the state of affairs between herself and Ryan. Margaret, who had guessed at their situation long before, consulted Richard upon the matter and Millie was immediately assured that, should Ryan need to leave Glassnest, he was guaranteed the spare room on the second floor, or, if they were to marry without Randolph’s consent, they could continue living at the surgery until such a time as Ryan’s new employment might necessitate their departure.

“Ryan will find work here,” Richard assured Millie. “There’s such a shortage of young men now, due to the losses in the war, that a personable, intelligent chap like Ryan, willing to turn his hand to anything, is sure to find a position.”

Millie’s confidence was bolstered by Richard’s words to such an extent that, when her Aunt Rose proposed that Millie should come away with her to the South Coast for a fortnight in August, Millie declined the offer, stating that she wished to spend her holidays at Glassnest instead. Then, she decided, she would tell Randolph of her intentions.

 

 

Chapter 22

 

“Ryan and I are going to get married, Daddy.”

Millie spent a week at Glassnest before she plucked up the courage to confront her father. Each day she rode Kerry from early morning well into the afternoon, in order to maximise her exposure to Ryan – on a couple of occasions he was able to ride out with her on Wellington, which was heavenly. They had to exercise a certain amount of discretion, of course, and the arduousness involved in doing this was probably what, in the end, pushed Millie to the conclusion of an audience with Randolph. She didn’t tell Ryan what she was going to do though, in case she couldn’t go through with it when it came to the crunch.

“I’m sorry?” Randolph said, sounding genuinely confounded by her statement.

“Ryan O’Flynn and I are in love – we have been for five years. We’re going to get married.”

“Millicent, this is preposterous.” He didn’t sound angry; just truly shocked.

“It would be nice to have your blessing,” Millie proceeded, trying to sound dispassionate but aware of a trembling sensation all about her being which, she knew, could be detected in her voice. “I appreciate that you will most likely disinherit me but I hope you won’t disown me completely.”

“You can’t do this, Millicent,” Randolph said but his tone was one of futility – it was outrageous that she was even contemplating doing it – his only child was lost to him already.

Millie gave him no response.

“It’s bad enough that you insist on working now the war is over–”

“Ryan and I have Richard’s approval–”

“That’s no surprise; he’s as barmy as you,” Randolph couldn’t help but say sarcastically.

Millie was determined not to take his bait and continued calmly, “So if you have a problem with Ryan continuing to work on the estate, he can return to London with me. We can leave today,” she added because her father’s look was so bloody that she couldn’t imagine Ryan’s life would be anything other than miserable if he stayed on at Glassnest after she’d gone.

Randolph was silent for a moment before saying softly, “That might be best.”

Millie suddenly appreciated that he was genuinely hurt by her revelation. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to upset you.” She paused before continuing, “I do know what I’m doing. I’ll never love anyone but Ryan – I’ve known that for a long time now. So the only way I can possibly be happy is to be with him.”

Randolph sat at his desk, his face downcast.

Millie lingered for a moment but, when he failed to react to her words, she left the room, closing the heavy study door gently behind her as she went.

 

  • * *

 

“I’m sorry,” Millie said to Ryan as they stood facing one another in his room in the servants’ quarters. She seemed to be apologising to everyone today. “I just didn’t really think it through before I acted–”

“There’s no need to apologise, Millie,” Ryan said, crossing the room and embracing her. At least they didn’t have to keep up the pretence of the servant and mistress relationship any more. Ryan had been shocked when she’d appeared at the door to his room but he now understood why she’d been able to come to him so boldly.

“If we can pack quickly and get John to take us to the station, we’ll be back in London by evening. But I don’t want to rush you–”

“Millie, I’m practically done,” Ryan said, letting go of her to fold another shirt to put it in his small case.

Millie watched him lovingly. She’d thought she had taken little enough away with her when she’d left Glassnest –most of her wardrobe being unsuited to her working life– but, when she saw how little Ryan possessed altogether, it made her feel humbled. His worldly goods amounted to no more luggage than she’d brought for a two-week stay.

“But it’s not just me dragging you away like this,” she continued, “it’s the fact that you’re having to leave at all–”

Ryan left off packing to seize hold of her again. He kissed her lips and then stroked her cheek, saying, “Listen, I’m amazed you had the courage to tell him. Of course he’s angry. Of course he wants shut of the both of us but I’m not in the least worried about that.”

Millie at last relaxed a little and even mustered a smile.

“This is sudden but wonderful,” Ryan continued, holding onto Millie and swaying her from side to side in his arms, his own expression becoming animated, the more he allowed himself to contemplate the future. “We’re going to London to start a new life!”

Millie reached up and kissed him, smiling broadly now to see him in agreement with her scheme.

“Are you packed?” Ryan asked.

“No, I haven’t begun,” Millie admitted.

Ryan rolled his eyes, knowing she would take far longer than him. “Well, get along and make a start,” he said, “and I’ll finish off here and find John.”

“What will you tell him?” Millie asked.

“That we need a ride to the station–”

“Won’t you be sad to leave them all?” Millie pursued. She knew that the staff at Glassnest were the nearest thing Ryan had known to a family since his earliest years.

“Of course, but I’m a whole lot happier about where I’m going and what I’m gaining,” he said, gazing adoringly into Millie’s eyes, so that his words and his look brought a tear to her own.

The door to the room opened, revealing the usually imposing figure of Randolph. But he looked small as they both turned to face him. “Ryan,” he said in acknowledgement as he entered the room.

“Sir Randolph,” Ryan replied deferentially.

Millie said nothing.

Randolph closed the door behind him and stood before them. They still had their arms about one another – Ryan’s deference didn’t extend to undoing his hold on Millie. Their faces, though, were fixed on Randolph.

“Unpack your suitcase, Ryan; there’s no need for you to go anywhere,” he said.

 

  • * *

 

“I can’t pretend that this is what I envisaged for my daughter,” Randolph began, when Millie and Ryan sat before him in the morning room. He hadn’t wanted to talk to them in Ryan’s quarters and his study seemed too formal a location so he’d summoned them here. “But I accept that your mind’s made up, Millicent.”

“It is, Daddy,” Millie was quick to confirm.

“And I’m sorry about the way I spoke to you earlier but your revelation came as a great surprise to me,” Randolph, having been careful to avoid using the word ‘shock,’ continued. “But, on reflection, I realise that I should be glad that you intend to marry a man as good and faithful as Ryan, and so I give you both my blessing.”

Millie could hardly believe what she was hearing – she was speechless.

“Thank you Sir Randolph,” Ryan said simply.

“And so I would like you to stay here, Millicent; there’s no need to return to London.”

“Oh but I’ll need to eventually–”

“There’ll be no need for you to work when you’re married,” Randolph continued.

“But there will,” Millie insisted. “Until Ryan can find work, we’ll be dependent on my income–”

“You misunderstand me, my dear,” Randolph said, smiling at her wilfulness because it reminded him of her mother. “I would like you and Ryan to remain living here at Glassnest once you’re married.”

Millie turned to look at Ryan and saw a smile spread across his face. He was a country boy at heart; of course he’d rather stay here than move to the city. “Maybe we could find a little house nearby,” Millie suggested.

Randolph realised he needed to speak more plainly. “I was rather hoping the two of you might consider taking over the running of this place,” he said. “I’ve had enough of all the paperwork and you’ll be far better at dealing with it than I ever was, Millicent. And Ryan will make an excellent hands-on estate manager. I’m looking forward to my retirement already…”

Millie, heartened by her father’s display of good humour, looked at Ryan and asked him, “What do you think?”

Ryan, whose beaming face already conveyed his answer, nodded his head and said, “Yes.”

“That’s agreed then, Daddy,” Millie said, turning her attention back to her father.

“Very good,” he replied. “And now, I think we should really have a formal celebration of your engagement,” he said ceremoniously. “Nip out and ring for Mrs Overton, Millie,” he continued, “I’ve been saving a rather good bottle of Champagne for just such an occasion as this.”

Mention of the housekeeper reminded Ryan of what he should have been doing. “I’m afraid, Sir Randolph, I’m supposed to be chopping some wood this afternoon–”

“I think you can be excused that task, Ryan,” Randolph said, trying hard not to laugh at the situation, which he now realised to be somewhat comical.

“But I did promise Mrs Overton I’d do it.”

Millie was struggling to hold back from giggling too. “Then why don’t you go down to the kitchens, find Mrs O and the bottle and then bring it and her back up here so she can make a toast with us?”

That plan of action receiving the approval of Randolph, Ryan promptly left the morning room.

“Speaking of duties,” Millie said to her father, “I do need to go back to London to tidy up my work at the surgery, if I’m going to hand it over to a new secretary.”

“But you weren’t due to go for another week,” Randolph pointed out, “so why not wait until then and you can take Ryan with you.”

Millie was amazed how supportive he was now being.

“The two of you can organise your wedding attire while you’re down there,” he continued. “We’ll book you into a good hotel for a few nights – my treat – and the bridal clothes, of course. In fact, Ryan could do with a new wardrobe, couldn’t he? If he’s going to be my son-in-law, he needs to look the part.”

 

 

Chapter 23

 

During the week that followed at Glassnest, Millie and Ryan’s wedding plans developed in an unanticipated manner. It began with Daniel remarking, when congratulating Ryan upon his forthcoming nuptials, how he longed to be able to marry Effie but was constrained by finances. When Ryan relayed this comment to Millie, she recognised the opportunity to make the wedding a more relaxed affair that would be better suited to both Ryan’s and her own tastes.

Millie had already declined Randolph’s offer of a fine trousseau, regarding it as a waste of money. Following the conversation with her fiancé, however, she returned to her father with what she considered a far better proposal for how he might invest his wealth.

So it was that on a mild, sunny day in the autumn of 1919, Glassnest Hall and the little chapel that dwelt on the edge of its grounds, played host to not one but two marriages. And the guests present were as diverse as Randolph’s faithful manservant, John, and Millie’s distinguished aunt, Rose. It had been the brain-child of Mrs Overton to suggest that, if Sir Randolph hired in caterers, the house staff could all be in attendance at the ceremony and following festivities – she herself, of course, never quite let the kitchens escape from the corner of her watchful eye.

Although it was a pity that the occasion could not, therefore, be regarded wholly as a Glassnest affair, Mrs Overton deemed the overseeing of it to be her final gesture before retirement. John, too, held the status of a guest of honour on account of his impending withdrawal from working life. Their roles were to be taken over by one of the happy couples, whilst Randolph’s was to be shared jointly between the other.

Everybody, apart from Aunt Rose, remarked how radiant both brides looked in their simple, modest, almost rustic wedding dresses. Many guests who belonged to the household or the village were so bold as to suggest they might have been mistaken for sisters. Only Aunt Rose expressed disapproval that Millie’s dress –and indeed the occasion overall– didn’t exhibit more grandeur.

In addition to her misgivings about the bridal gown, Rose cast doubt upon Ryan’s ability to furnish his bride’s hand with a suitably expensive ring. She was further alarmed upon discovery, only hours before the ceremony, that the bride herself had no idea as to what the ring looked like or, indeed, whether there even was a ring.

In the event, Millie recognised the ring that Ryan placed on her finger, as they stood alongside Daniel and Effie before the altar of the small church, to be that which had belonged to her own mother – how like Effie to have returned it in such an understated way.

During the ceremony neither Ryan nor Millie displayed great emotion; it was Effie who cried when saying her vows, which softened Daniel’s heart. Only much later in the day, when Millie stole her new husband away from the celebrations, to stand beside her out on the terrace of the great house, and they surveyed the sun setting over the vast grounds of the estate, did she find tears welling in her own eyes. She could never have believed she could possess all this: both the home and the husband she adored.

Turning to face Ryan, Millie said, “I love you Mr O’Flynn.”

“And I love you, Mrs Millie O’Flynn,” he replied.

After a kiss that they both had to admit lasted too long, they returned, hand-in-hand, to the ballroom. It was there that Millie beheld a sight she would hold dear in her memory for years to come. Most of the more distinguished guests having now departed, the floor had been taken over by Glassnest’s staff and they were engaged in a boisterous country dance. Sitting alone at a table in a corner of the great room, with a small glass of sherry in front of her, was Aunt Rose. Thinking she went unnoticed, the superior lady was clapping along to the music of the dance, smiling widely and altogether –there was no denying it– enjoying herself.

“Come on,” Millie said to Ryan, “let’s go and sit with Rose.”

 

  • * * * *

 

If you have enjoyed Miss Millie’s Groom, visit Catherine E. Chapman’s Shakespir Profile page for details of her other books:

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/profile/view/CatherineChapman

 

Catherine’s other books include:

 

The Hangar Dance – a short WWII romance:

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/277501

 

Brizecombe Hall – a short Victorian romance:

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/75187

 

Kitty – a short Regency romance:

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/338206

 

Brizecombe Hall, Kitty and The Hangar Dance are also available as a collection of Three Romances:

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/356113

 

High Sea – a short Victorian romance:

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/517058

 

Braggot Park, Danburgh Castle and Rhiannon – short, sensual Elizabethan and Medieval romances – available individually and in the collection, Three Medieval Romances:

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/404382

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/269771

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/155276

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/414993

 

All seven of Catherine’s short historical romances are available in the anthology Collected Romances:

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/560116

 

Elizabeth Clansham – a contemporary romance set in the Scottish Highlands:

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/68015

 

The Beacon Singer – a contemporary novel set in the English Lake District:

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/111240

 

Clifton – a contemporary novella:

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/387978

 

For tasters of Catherine’s contemporary writing, read The Office Party, Opening Night, The Ramblers, The Family Tree and All the Trimmings, short stories available to download free:

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/463518

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/393878

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/180502

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/438936

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/369854

 

For news, including promotions, follow Catherine’s blog:

http://www.romanceornotromance.wordpress.com

 

Catherine is also on Facebook:

[+ http://www.facebook.com/pages/Catherine-E-Chapman/434999469868920+]

 

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5202084.Catherine_E_Chapman

 

and Twitter: http://twitter.com/CathEChapman

 

Cover Design for Miss Millie’s Groom:

SelfPubBookCovers.com/INeedABookCover

 


Miss Millie's Groom

It is the summer of 1914 and Britain teeters on the brink of war. Society girl, Millicent Awbridge, is oblivious to the impending conflict and preoccupied with the recent shooting of her horse. When she confronts the culprit, Ryan O'Flynn, a groom in her father's service, Millie finds romance rather than hostility. The encounter sparks a series of events that brings Millie's burgeoning womanhood to fruition. Millie and Ryan's affair is conducted in secret but Millie's aunt has her suspicions and is determined to bring an end to it. Inevitably, the war also impacts on the young people's lives and others are implicated in the muddle. Will Millie and Ryan ever be truly united? A subtle romance, set in England during the First World War. "Millicent is vivacious, endearing and determined. I truly enjoyed her character a great deal from the first page to the last. She reminded me of Sybil from Downton Abbey; in fact, this novel has other overtones from that drama," (Romantic Historical Reviews, November 2016).

  • ISBN: 9781370638901
  • Author: Catherine E. Chapman
  • Published: 2017-03-10 13:35:16
  • Words: 41487
Miss Millie's Groom Miss Millie's Groom